BY IOAN SLAVICI
from Roumanian Stories
Translated by Lucy Byng
John Lane, The Bodley Head, London, 1921, pp.175-205
God have mercy on the soul of Schoolmaster Pintilie! He was a good man, and a well known chorister. He was very fond of salad with vinegar. Whenever he was hoarse, he would drink the yolk of an egg with it; when he raised his voice, the windows rattled while he sang, "Oh, Lord, preserve Thy people." He was schoolmaster in Butucani, a fine, large town containing men of position and sound sense, and given to almsgiving and hospitality. Now Schoolmaster Pintilie had only two children: a daughter married to Petrea Tzapu, and Trandafir, Father Trandafir, priest in Saraceni.
God keep Father Trandafir! He was a good man, he had studied many books, and he sang even better than his dead father, God have mercy on his soul! He always spoke correctly and carefully as though he were reading out of a book. Father Trandafir was an industrious, careful man. He gathered from many sources, and made something out of nothing. He saved, he mended, he collected to get enough for himself and for others.
Father Trandafir went through a great deal in his youth. One does not achieve big results in a minute or two. The poor man has to go without a great deal more than he ever gets. He worked harder with his brain than with a spade and fork. But what he did was not work thrown away. Young Trandafir became priest in his native town, in Butucani, a fine large town containing men of position and good sense, but Trandafir did not enjoy the almsgiving and hospitality.
Father Trandafir would have been a wonderful man had not one thing spoilt him. He was too severe in his speech, too harsh in his judgments; he was too straightforward and outspoken. He never minded his words, but said right out what he had in his mind. It is not good to be a man like that. Men take offence if you speak too plainly to them, and it is best to live peaceably with the world. This was evident in Father Trandafir's case. A man like him could not stay two years in Butucani. It was first one thing, then another; at one time he complained to the townspeople, the next time to the archdeacon. Now it is well known that priests must not make complaints to the archdeacon. The archdeacon understands presents much better than complaints. But that was what Father Trandafir would not comprehend.
There is no doubt that Father Trandafir was in the right.
But the thing is, right is the prerogative of the mighty. The weak can only assert themselves gradually. The ant cannot overthrow the mountain. It can, though, change its position; but slowly, slowly, bit by bit. Perhaps the Father knew that this was so in the world; he had his own standard, though.
"Even the devil cannot turn what is true and right into a lie!" This was his remark, and with this remark he got himself turned out of Butucani. That is to say, it was not only he who did it, it was the townspeople too. One word and a little something besides to promote a good understanding with the archdeacon, a visit to the bishop, and a word there from the archdeacon: things get done if one knows how to do them. The long and the short of it was that Father Trandafir was sent from Butucani to Saraceni—to promote a good understanding among the faithful. Priest in Saraceni! Who knows what that means to be priest in Saraceni? That is what befell Father Trandafir! Who would fain leap the ditch throws his bag over it first. Father Trandafir only had a wife and two children; his bag was empty. That was why he leaped so unwillingly from Butucani to Saraceni.
In the "Dry Valley" there was a village which they called "Saraceni." A village called "poor" in a "dry" valley; could any place have a more unpleasant name?
The Dry Valley!
"Valley" because the place was shut in between mountains; "dry," because the stream, which had cut its way through the middle of the valley, was dry most of the year.
This was how the valley lies.
To the right stood a hill called "Rīpoasa." On the left were three other hills, called "Fatza," "Grofnitza," and "Alunish." Rīpoasa was rocky. Fatza was cultivated; the village stood on Grofnitza, while on Alunish lay the village graveyard among hazel and birch trees. Thus it lay to right and left, but the chief feature of the landscape stood at the bottom. Here rose the mountains—from there, came what did come.
The other side, beyond Rīpoasa was the Rapitza Valley—a much deeper valley than the Dry Valley, and so called because the Rapitza flowed through it. The Rapitza was a treacherous river, especially in the spring, and the stream in the Dry Valley was a branch of the Rapitza. In the spring, when the snow melted on the mountains, the Rapitza got angry and poured part of her fury into the branch that flowed through the Dry Valley, and the latter ceased to be "dry."
In a few hours the inhabitants of Saraceni were rather too rich in water. This occurred nearly every year. When the crops in the valley appeared to be most favourable, the Dry Valley belied its name and washed away all that lay in its path.
It would have been rather better if this invasion had lasted only a short time, but the water remained in the valley, and in many plates formed refuges for the frog family. And instead of corn, osiers and interlacing willows grew by the side of its pools.
Was it any wonder that in consequence of this the people of Saraceni had become in time the most idle of men? He is a fool who sows where he cannot reap, or where he does not know whether he will be able to reap or not. The Fatza was a sandy spot; the corn grew a few inches high and the maize a yard; on Rīpoasa one could not grow blackberries even, for at the bottom the water spoilt the fruit. Where there is no hope of reward there is no incentive to work. Whoever works wants to earn, but the people of Saraceni had given up all thoughts of gain, and therefore no one felt inspired to work. Those who could afford it passed their time lying out of doors; those who could not, spent their day working in the neighbouring villages. When the winter came life was hard and bitter.
But whoever has got used to the bad does not think of better things; the people of Saraceni appeared to think that things could not be better than they were. Fish in the water, birds in the air, moles in the ground, and the people of Saraceni in poverty!
Saraceni? One can imagine what a village like Saraceni must have been; here a house, there a house—all alike. Hedges were superfluous, seeing there was nothing to enclose; the street was the whole village. It would have been absurd to put a chimney on the house—the smoke found its way out through the roof. There would have been no sense in putting plaster on the walls either, as that dropped off in time. Some of the buildings were made of bits of wood knocked together, a roof of straw mixed with hay, an oven of clay, an old-fashioned veranda outside, a bed with four posts built into the ground, a door made out of three boards held together by two stakes placed crosswise—quickly made and well made—whoever was not pleased with it, let him make something he liked better.
At the top of the village, that is to say on the highest point, was a sort of building which the Saracenese called the "church." It was a heap of old tree trunks piled one on the top of the other in the form of walls. In the old days—when, one does not know—these kind of walls were open to the sky; later, one does not know when, the walls had been made to converge in one place, to support what was supposed to do duty for a tower. This—owing to the fact that the supports of the faēade had perished through the buffeting of a very strong wind—had fallen towards the patient earth, dragging the entire structure after it. And there it had remained ever since, for the church counted far little in Saraceni; it was superfluous.
Priest? They say there is no village without a priest. Probably whoever said this did not know about Saraceni. Saraceni was a village without a priest. That is to say, it was a village with a priest—only this priest was a priest without a village. Saraceni was unique in one way. There had never been a priest who stayed more than three days in Saraceni; he came one day, stayed the next, and left on the third. Many guilty priests passed through Saraceni; whoever had stayed there long would have expiated all his sins.
Then Father Trandafir reached this penitential spot. He could not expect to do as the others had done, come one day, stay the next, and depart the third. He was too much out of favour with the archdeacon to imagine that he would send him to another village. He could not remain without a village: a priest without a village—a cart without a wheel, a yoke without oxen, a hat on the top of a wig. He began to think what he must do; he must take things as they were, and stay gladly in Saraceni. It was only a village in name, but no one could say he was a priest without a village. But really a more suitable priest for a more suitable village you could not have found. The poverty of the priest corresponded to the poverty in the homes of his parishioners. From the beginning Trandafir realized one thing: it was much nicer in Butucani than in Saraceni. There the people all had something, and you could always have some of it. In Saraceni all the latches were made of wood. Then the Father reflected: the priest did all the business of the town, but the town took care of the priest's purse. Before long the Father began to feel sure that the people who started by being charitable and hospitable were not born fools. "It is a wise thing when men meet together to comfort and cheer each other. Even our Redeemer began with almsgiving, and the wedding at Cana of Galilee." Thus thought Father Trandafir; but in Saraceni there was neither almsgiving nor hospitality.
"There is one thing," said the Father to himself a little later on, "in a poor village there is no corn for the priest to gather. As long as the people of Saraceni are lazy, so long shall I be hungry!" And he began to think how he was going to make his parishioners industrious. The industrious man eats the stones, makes soup out of the stagnant water, and reaps corn where the hemlock used to grow. "Then"—concluded the priest—"when the cow has fodder she is no longer dry!"
Thus he spoke, and he set to work to put it in practice. A man who has nothing to eat busies himse1f with other people's affairs. He does no good that way! The blind man cannot aid the cripple; the hungry don't improve their village; when the geese keep watch among the vegetables, little remains for the gardener: but Father Trandafir was obstinate; when he started, he went on—and he got there, or he died by the way.
The first Sunday Father Trandafir preached before the people, who had assembled in considerable numbers to see the new priest. There is nothing more agreeable to a man who desires the welfare of others than to see his words making an impression. A good thought multiplies itself, penetrating many hearts, and whoever possesses it and passes it on, if he values it, rejoices to see it gaining ground in the world. Father Trandafir felt happy that day. Never before had he been listened to with such attention as on this occasion. It seemed as though these people were listening to something which they knew but which they did not understand well. They drank in his words with such eagerness, it was as though they wanted to read his very soul the better to understand his teaching. That day he read the gospel of "The Prodigal Son." Father Trandafir showed how God, in His unending love for man, had created him to be happy. Having placed man in the world, God wishes him to enjoy all the innocent pleasures of life, for only so will he learn to love life and live charitably with his neighbours. The man who, through his own fault or owing to other causes, only feels the bitterness and sorrow of this world cannot love life; and, not loving it, he despises in a sinful manner the great gift of God.
What kind of people are the lazy people, the people who make no effort, who do not stretch out a hand to take this gift? They are sinners! They have no desires—only carnal appetites. Man has been given pure desires which he may gratify with the fruit of his labours; longings are put into his heart that he may conquer the world while God Himself contemplates him with pleasure from on high. To work is the first duty of man; and he who does not work is a sinner.
After this, the Father sketched in words which seemed to give life to his ideas the miserable existence of a man perishing from hunger, and he gave his faithful hearers the thoughts which had germinated in his own intelligent brain—how they must work in the spring and in the summer, in the autumn and in the winter.
The people had listened; the Father's words were written on their faces; going home they could only talk of what they had heard in church, and each one felt himself more of a man than before.
Maybe there were many among them who only waited for Sunday to pass that they might begin their first day of work.
"There has never been such a priest in Saraceni!" said Marcu Flori Cucu, as he parted from his neighbour, Mitru.
"A priest that does honour to a village," replied Mitru, as if he felt that his village was not exactly honoured.
Other Sundays followed. Father Trandafir was ready with his sermon. The second Sunday he had no one to address. The weather was wet, and people stayed at home. Other Sundays the weather was fine; probably then the people did not remember in time; they were loath to part from God's blue sky. And so the Father only had in church some old woman or some aged man with failing sight and deaf ears. Sometimes there was only Cozonac, the bell-ringer. In this way he made no progress. Had he been a different kind of man he would have stopped here.
But Father Trandafir was like the goat among cabbages in the garden. When you turn it out at the door, it comes in through the fence, when you mend the fence, it jumps over it, and does a lot more damage by destroying the top of the hedge.
God keep him! Father Trandafir still remained a good man.
"Wait!" he said. "If you will not come to me, I will go to you!"
Then the priest went from door to door. He never ceased talking from the moment it was light. Whenever he came across anyone he gave him good advice. You met the priest in the fields; you found him on the hill; if you went down the valley you encountered the priest; the priest was in the woods. The priest was in church; the priest was at the death-bed; the priest was at the wedding; the priest was with your next-door neighbour—you had to fly the village if you wanted to escape the priest. And whenever he met you, he gave you wise counsel.
During a whole year, Father Trandafir gave good advice. People listened gladly—they liked to stay and talk to the priest even if he did give them good advice. All the same, the old saying holds good: men know what they ought to do, but they don't do it. The Father was disappointed. After a certain time he ceased to give advice. There was not a man in the village upon whom he had not poured the whole weight of his learning: he had nothing more to say.
"This will not do," said the priest once more. "Advice does not pay. I must start something more severe."
He began to chaff.
Wherever he found a man, Father Trandafir began to make him ridiculous, to make fun of him in every kind of way. If he passed a house that had not been re-roofed yesterday, he would say to the owner: "Oh, you are a clever man, you are! You have windows in the roof. You do love the light and the blessed sun!" If he found a woman in a dirty blouse: "Look at me! Since when have you taken to wearing stuff dresses?"
If he met an unwashed child: "Listen, good wife, you must have a lot of plum jam if you can plaster your children with it!" And if he came across a man lying in the shade he would say to him, "Good luck with your work! Good luck with your work!" If the man got up, he would beg him not to stop work, for his children's sake.
He began like this, but he carried it altogether too far. It got to such a pitch that the people did their utmost to get out of the priest's way. He became a perfect pest. The worst thing about it was that the people nicknamed him "Popa Tanda" because he chaffed them so. And "Popa Tanda" he has remained ever since.
To tell the truth, it was only in one way the people did not like the priest. Each one was ready to laugh at the others with the priest; no one was pleased, though, when the others laughed at him. That is human; every one is ready to saddle his neighbour's mare. In that way, Father Trandafir pleased his parishioners, but he was not content himself. Before the year was out, every man in the village had become a tease; there was not a person left of whom to make fun, and in the end the wags began to laugh at themselves. That put an end to it. Only one thing remained to do: the village to make fun of the priest.
Two whole years passed without Trandafir being able to stir up the people, even when he had passed from advising them to annoying them. They became either givers of advice or they were teasers: all day they stood in groups, some of them giving advice, others joking. It was a wonderful affair; the people recognized the right, despised the bad; but nothing altered them.
"Eh! say now, didn't Father Trandafir mind? Didn't he get angry, very angry?"
He did get wild. He began to abuse the people. As he had proceeded to advise them, and to chaff them, so now he proceeded to abuse them. Whenever he got hold of a man, he abused him. But he did not get far with this. At first the people allowed themselves to be insulted. Later on, they began to answer back, on the sly, as it were. Finally, thinking it was going too far, they began to abuse the priest.
From now on, things got a little involved. Everything went criss-cross. The people began to tell the priest that if he did not leave off laughing at them, and insulting them, they would go to the bishop and get him removed from the village. That is what the priest deserved. The people had hit on the very thing! Throw him out of Saraceni! The priest began to curse in earnest. Off he went; the people got in to their carts to go to the archdeacon, and from the archdeacon to the bishop.
In the Book of Wisdom, concerning the life of this world, there is a short sentence which says: our well-wishers are often our undoing and our evil-wishers are useful to us. Father Trandafir was not lucky in getting good out of his evil-wishers. The bishop was a good soul, worthy of being put in all the calendars all over the face of the earth. He took pity on the poor priest, said he was in the right, and scolded the people.
And so Popa Tanda stayed in Saraceni.
Misfortunes generally heap themselves upon mankind. One gives rise to another, or are they, perhaps, inseparable? Anyhow, they are always like light and shade, one alongside the other.
By now Father Trandafir had three children. When he returned from the bishop, he found his wife in bed. There was a fourth little blessing in the house. A sick wife, three little children, a fourth at the breast, and a tumble-down house; the snow drifted through the walls, the stove smoked, the wind came through the roof, the granary was bare, his purse empty, and his heart heavy.
Father Trandafir was not the man to find a way out of this embarrassing state of things. Had it been some one else in his situation, he could have helped him: he could not comfort himself. For a long time he stood in the dim light of the little lamp; every one around him slept. The sick woman was asleep. Now there is nothing more conducive to melancholy than the sight of people asleep. He loved those sleeping forms; he loved them and was responsible for their happiness; he lived for them, and their love made life precious to him. Thoughts crowded into his brain. His mind turned to the past and to the future; considering the state in which he found himself, the future could only appear depicted in the saddest colours. His children! His wife! What would become of them? His heart was heavy, and he could not find one consoling thought, one single loop-hole of escape; nowhere in the world was there anything to give him a gleam of hope.
The next day was Sunday. The Father went to church with bowed head, to read Matins.
Like the generality of mankind, Father Trandafir had never given much thought to what he was doing. He was a priest, and he was content with his lot. He liked to sing, to read the Gospel, to instruct the faithful, to comfort, and to give spiritual assistance to the erring. His thoughts did not go much beyond that. Had he been asked at any time whether he realized the sanctity, the inner meaning of his calling, maybe he would have laughed to himself at all those things which a man only grasps in moments of intense suffering. It is man's nature when his mind comprehends a series of more or less deep thoughts, to measure the whole world by this standard, and not to believe what he does not understand. But man does not always think in this way. There are events during which his brain becomes inactive: in danger, when no escape seems possible; in moments of joy, when he knows not from what source his happiness is derived; at times when his train of thought seems to have lost all coherence. Then, when man has reached, in any way, the point where the possible becomes indistinguishable from the impossible, he ceases to reason, instinct asserts itself.
Father Trandafir went into the church. How many times had he not entered that church! Just as a blacksmith might enter his forge. But this time he was seized with an incomprehensible fear, he took a few steps forward and then hid his face in his hands and began to sob bitterly. Why did he cry? Before whom did he cry? His lips uttered these words only: "Almighty God, succour me!" Did he believe that this prayer, expressed with all the energy of despair, could bring him help? He believed nothing; he thought of nothing; he was in a state of exaltation.
The Holy Scriptures teach us that just as the ploughman lives on the fruit of his toil, so does the spiritual pastor, who serves the altar, live by the result of his service at that altar. Father Trandafir always believed in the Holy Scriptures; he always worked only for the spiritual welfare of his people, and expected that they, in return, would furnish him with his daily bread. But the world is not always in agreement with what is written and commanded; only the priest agreed with it, the people did not. The Father got little from his office, anyhow not enough; this is to say, four pieces of ground near the village, a poll-tax on the population, and baptismal and burying fees.
Taken altogether, it amounted to nothing, seeing that the earth produced scarcely anything, the poll-tax existed only in name, the new-born were baptized for nothing, and the dead were buried gratis by the priest.
Near the church was a deserted house; a house in name only. The owner of the house could have kept cattle, hut he had no beasts. By the side of the house there was room for a garden, but there was no garden because, as we have already said, there were no fences in Saraceni. Father Trandafir bought the whole place and lived in it. As the house belonged to the priest, nothing much was done to put it in order, and it was quite dilapidated, the walls had holes in them, there were rents in the roof. The Father only troubled himself about other people's houses.
The priest's table was no better than the house. According to the old saying, man follows the ways of other men even when he wants to make them follow his own: the priest lived like the rest of the village. Happily he had his wife's dowry, but often one does not try to get help from just the place where it is to be had. The season of Lent drew near.
"It will not do!" said Father Trandafir. "This will not do!" And he began to do as the rest of the world does, to occupy himself first and foremost with the care of his own house.
Directly the spring-time came, he hired a gipsy, and set him to work to plaster the house with clay. In a few days all four walls were firmly plastered. After that, the priest enjoyed sitting outside more than inside the house, because you could not see the walls of the house so well from within; a plastered house was a fine thing in Saraceni, especially when one could say to oneself, "That is mine!" There was one thing, though, which was not as it should be. Every time the Father's eyes fell upon the sides of the roof he went indoors—he felt he had seen enough. He did not want to see the defective roof, but every time he wanted to look at the walls he had to see the roof. That damned roof! It could no longer be left like that.
Down in the valley where there are numerous pools, not only willows and osiers grew, but here and there were to be found sedges and rushes, cat's-tail and a species of reed. "That is what I will do!" thought the priest. He engaged a man, and sent him out to cut sedges and rushes and cat's-tail and reeds. One Saturday the house was surrounded by bundles tied with osiers; and the following Saturday the roof was mended and edged on the top with bundles of reeds over which were stretched two strips of wood fastened with cross pieces. The work was good, and not dear. People passed by the priest's house nodding their heads and saying, "The priest is one of the devil's own men." Now the priest could stay happily outside.
But this happiness did not last long. There was still one thing that was not quite right. The priest felt that he was too much in the open. There was no other house in the village like his, and it would have been better a little separated from the village. The Father hardly liked to say "At my place," when "my place" was "in the village." There must be a fence, and a gate for the people to enter by, when they came to see the priest; it might be a fence in name only, and the gate only a hurdle, but it must be an understood thing that before anyone could enter the priest's house he must cross the priest's yard. Once more the priest hired a man and sent him to cut briars and stakes. He fixed the stakes into the ground, and placed the briars between them, and there was the fence, ready made. In front of the house, in the direction of the church, about half an acre of ground was enclosed: the gate was formed by four poles fastened by two others placed crosswise. The priest's wife especially rejoiced at being thus shut in, and the priest rejoiced when he saw his wife's pleasure. There was not a day on which either the priest or his wife did not say to the children: "Listen! you are not to go outside the yard; play quietly at home."
Once a man starts, he never gets to the end. One desire gives rise to another. Now the priest's wife got an idea in her head.
"Do you know, Father," she said one morning, "I think it would be a good plan to make a few beds for vegetables by the side of the fence."
"Yes; we can sow onions, carrots, haricot beans, potatoes, and cabbages."
The Father was astonished. To him that seemed quite beyond their powers. Vegetable-beds in Saraceni!
For a few days his head was full of vegetable-beds, of potatoes, cabbages, and haricot beans; and a few days after that, the ground was already dug up and the beds were ready. Not a day passed on which the priest and his wife did not go about ten times to the beds to see if the seeds were growing. Great was the joy one day. The priest had risen very early.
"Wife, get up!"
"What's the matter?"
"They have sprouted."
The priest and his wife and all the children spent the whole day squatting by the beds. The more seeds they saw appear above the ground, the happier they were.
And again the villagers passed by the priest's house and looked through the thorns at the priest's vegetable-beds, and they said once more, "The priest is one of the devil's own men!"
"Listen, wife," said the priest. "Wouldn't it be a good plan to sow maize along the fence and round the beds?"
"Indeed it would! I like fresh maize!"
"So do I, especially when it's roasted on the embers!"
Here was a new task! The priest surrounded himself with maize. He laughed with pleasure when he thought how pretty it would be when the maize grew up all round and shut out the briars on the fence which had begun to offend his eyes. But there is the old proverb, "Much wants more." At the back of the house was another strip of ground, about four times the size of the bit they had cultivated. The priest could not get it out of his head. Why should this land lie fallow? Couldn't he plant maize at the back of the house too? In the fields opposite, men were ploughing and sowing, the ground was untouched still in the village because it was the village.
Marcu Flori Cucu, the priest's neighbour, had a plough; it was rather dilapidated, but it was a plough, and Mitru Catamush, Marcu's neighbour, had two feeble oxen and a foundered horse. The priest, Marcu, Mitru, the oxen and the horse, worked all one day from morn till eve. The ground was ploughed up and sown with maize. From thenceforward the priest was happier when he was at the back of the house.
It was a wonderful and beautiful bit of work—what furrows! And here and there among the furrows a blade of maize peeped out. In spite of this, the priest scratched himself once or twice, and then fairly often, behind the ear. It seemed as though something still weighed upon his mind. It was a difficult matter, which he hardly dare take in hand: the glebe lands. Up to now, they had been neglected; at present, he did not know what to do with them. He would have liked to work them himself. He would have liked to see his own men sowing them; he would have liked to take his wife there in the autumn. It was very tempting. He talked a great deal to his wife about the matter. They would need horses, a cart, a plough, a labourer, stables—they would want a quantity of things. Moreover, the priest did not understand agriculture.
However, the vegetable-beds were growing green, the maize was springing up. The priest made up his mind; he took the residue of his wife's dowry and set to work. Mareu's plough was good enough to start with. The priest bought one horse from Mitru; a man in the Rapitza Valley had another one; Stan Schiopu had a cart with three wheels. The priest bought it as he got a wheel from Mitru, to make up for the horse being foundered.
Cozonac, the bell-ringer, engaged himself as labourer to the priest, for his house was only a stone's throw away. The priest drove four posts into the ground at one end of the house, two long ones and two short, and he made three sides of plaited osiers and a roof of rushes, and there was the stable all ready.
During these days, Father Trandafir had aged by about ten years; but he grew young again when he placed his wife and children in the cart, whipped up the horses, and drove off to see their ploughed land.
The villagers saw him, and shook their heads, and said once more: "The priest is the devil's own man."
The priest's wife had her own feminine worries. She had a beautiful Icon which had been given to her by the son of the priest at Vezura. At present the Icon was lying at the bottom of a box wrapped up in paper. For a long time she had wished to place it between the windows, to put flowers and sweet basil round it, and look at it often; because this Icon represented the Holy Virgin, and the priest's daughter was called Mary. But the walls were dirty and the Icon had no case. There was another thing that annoyed the priest' s wife: one window was filled in with a pig's bladder, and in the other were three broken panes mended with paper. The house was rather dark.
Easter drew near. There were only five days to Holy Week. If the priest wanted to spend Easter with his wife, he had still three important things to get: whitewash for the walls, windows for the house, and a case for the Icon of the most Blessed Virgin—all objects that could be found only in a town.
To the market, then!
The priest had horses and a cart. He was vexed about the osier baskets for the maize: only the backs and sides of them still remained. He was ashamed that a priest like himself should have to go to the market without any maize-baskets. He could not borrow any, seeing he was at Saraceni, where even the priest had no proper maize-baskets.
They say "Necessity is the best teacher." The Father sent Cozonac down the valley to fetch osiers, planted two stakes in the ground with thinner sticks set between them about a hand's breadth apart, and then the priest and his wife and children, and Cozonac too, began to plait the osiers in. Before long the baskets were ready. The work was not very remarkable, but for all that they were the best baskets in Saraceni, and so good that Cozonac could not refrain from saying, "The priest is one of the devil's own men!"
To the market-place and from the market-place home the Father went proudly with his baskets; other people had same, but he found people could buy worse baskets than those he had made himself.
"What is the priest making?"
"Baskets for the maize."
"But he has got some."
"He is making them for those who have not got any."
After Easter, Cozonac began to clear the pools of osiers which the priest wove into baskets. The longer the work continued, the better was it done; the last basket was always the best.
Marcu Flori Cucu was a sensible man. He liked to stay and talk to the priest. Cozonac cleared the osiers, the priest plaited them, while Marcu lay upon his stomach with his head in his hands and idly watched.
"This osier is a little too long," said the priest, measuring the osier with his eye. "Here, Marcu! Give me the hatchet to make it shorter."
The hatchet was at Marcu's feet. Marcu raised the upper part of his body, supported himself on his elbows, stretched out his legs, and began feeling about for the hatchet, trying to draw it up by his feet.
"Make haste!" said the priest, and gave him a cut with the osier.
Marcu jumped up and assured the priest that he was much more nimble than he thought. In the end, this assurance was of great use to him. By Whitsuntide the priest had a cart-load of baskets ready to take to the market, and Marcu knew very well that if the priest sold the baskets he would have a cheerful holiday.
The priest had had help for some weeks, and the help had always brought a reward to the man who had given it.
Just before Whitsuntide the rain began, and seemed as though it would never cease.
"I do not know what I shall do," said the priest. "It seems as though I must leave the market until after Whitsuntide. I do not like going in the rain. If it does not stop raining by Thursday, I just shall not go."
Marcu scratched himself behind his ears and said nothing. He could see that it did not suit the priest to get soaked.
"Here," he said a little later, ceasing to plait, "couldn't we weave an awning? There are reeds and rushes and osiers in the valley."
"Perhaps you are right," replied the priest. "It could be made the same way as we are making these."
Through helping him, Marcu had learnt to make better baskets than the priest. The awning did Marcu great credit, the priest did not get wet and came back from the market with a full purse.
This time Whit-Sunday was fine. The priest's wife had a new gown, the three eldest children had dolls bought in the town; the tiny one, Mary, had a straw hat with two pink flowers, the walls were white both inside and out, the windows were whole, the house was light, and the Icon of the Holy Virgin could be seen very well placed high up between the windows, decorated with flowers grown along the edge of the vegetable-beds. The priest had brought white flour, meat, butter, and even sugar, from the town. The priest loved his wife, but it was not his way to kiss her at odd times. But, this morning, the first thing he did was to embrace her. His wife began to cry—I don't know why—when Father Trandafir entered the church he felt inclined to cry; he had seen people in front of the Icon and there were tears in his eyes when he went up to the altar. The people say he had never sung more beautifully than he did that day. The saying remained: "To sing like the priest at Whitsuntide!"
The parishioners went to see the priest; they passed through the gate before they crossed the door-step; they wiped their boots, put their hats on their sticks, leaned their sticks against the wall, smoothed their moustaches and their beards, and stepped inside. When they came out of the house again, they took a look round, nodded their heads, and said nothing.
The years come, the years go; the world moves on, and man is sometimes at peace with the world, and sometimes at odds with it. The high road passed through the town, passed by the Dry Valley and ran farther on to the Rapitza Valley. Where the roads met, at the conjunction of the two valleys, there was a mill on the Rapitza. Near Rapitza was a cross; close to the cross was a fountain, and by the fountain were eight fine sycamores. This spot was called "The Cross of Saraceni." From here to Saraceni was only about an hour by road. In spite of this, whenever he came from the town, the man of Saraceni pulled up here to water his horse, and waited a while, hoping that same wayfarer might come and ask: "What village is that where one sees that beautiful church with white walls and the glittering tower?" And when he is asked, he strokes his moustache, and looking proudly towards the place replies: "Up there on the Grofnitza? That's our village—Saraceni; but you ought to hear the bells—what bells that tower contains! One can hear them a three hours' journey away!"
Where the road divided there stood a sign-post with two arms; on one arm was written, "To the Rapitza Valley," and on the other one, "Towards the Dry Valley." There was no road anywhere round about like the one that ran through the Dry Valley towards Saraceni.
It was as smooth as a table, and as solid as a cherry-stone. One could see the Saracenese had constructed it lovingly. To right and left, at intervals of ten to fifteen paces, were some shady nut-trees which were a pleasure to look at. The river-bed lay on the right; the road ran along its bank, but higher up, so that the water could not disturb it. The Saracenese had to destroy rock in their progress, but that they did cheerfully, for out of the rock they built the road.
From here on, the Saracene felt at horne, and drove at a foot's pace. But he was not bored for a second. At every step almost he met an acquaintance with whom he exchanged words, "Where do you come from?" and "Where are you going?" One man had a cart full of lime, another a load of apples; then came a man carrying a trellis-work, and another with a wheelbarrow, a stave, or some other article made of wood.
From time to time, along the side of the road, one found the stone-masons at work, their trowels ringing from daybreak till sunset. This road was not a dreary one!
There were lime-kilns where the road ran along the valley. In one place there was a whole village. Some men were loading up lime, others unloading stone and wood; the masons were shaping the stones, the men at the kilns were throwing wood on to the fires; the foremen were making noise enough for five.
From this point one could see the village well. The gardens were full of trees; only between the bushes or beyond the trees did one catch a glimpse here and there of a bit of the walls or the roofs of the houses. The priest's house was just up by the church; one could only see five windows and a red roof with two chimney stacks. Opposite the church stood the school. The house, of which one could only see a piece of wall with two windows and a roof, belonged to Marcu Flori Cucu.
The big building visible lower down was the Town Hall. If the houses had lain less closely together the village would have looked very beautiful, but, as it was, one only caught a glimpse and must imagine the rest.
Every one had changed; Father Trandafir only had remained the same: fresh, gay, and busy. If his grey hair and grizzled beard had not betrayed his age, we might have thought that the little children with whom he played in the evening, on the seat in front of the house, were his own. One of them, whom he had lifted up to kiss, stole his hat from off his head and ran away with it. Mariuca opened the window and called out:
"My little Trandafir, don't leave grandfather bareheaded."
Then she flew from the window to catch Ileana, who had stolen her grandmother's bonnet and adorned herself with it, and was now proudly showing herself to her grandfather. The old grandfather laughed heartily, he loved a joke. From close by came Father Costa, and caught first Ileana and then Mariuca, kissed them, and then seated himself by his father-in-law's side. Marcu, neighbour and old friend, Mariuca's father-in-law, and attached to the house, saw the group and came to join in the conversation.
"Old man, take your hat; you must not sit there bare-headed," said the grandmother, handing his hat through the window.
One of the villagers, in passing, wished him "Good night," and added to himself, "May the Lord preserve him for many years, for he is one of God's own men."