by Ion Creangă
I sometimes stop and call to mind the customs and people there used to be in my part of the world at the time when I had, so to speak, just begun to put a foot over the threshold of boyhood in my home in the village of Humuleşti. It faced the town on the other side of the waters of the River Neamţ; it was a large and cheerful village, divided into three closely connected parts: the village itself, the Deleni and the Bejeni. Moreover, Humuleşti in those days was not just a village of ne'er-do-wells but a prosperous and ancient village of freeholders, its reputation and standing having long since been assured, with farmers who knew their job, with stalwart young men and comely girls who could swing in the dance and swing the shuttle too, so that the village would buzz with the sound of looms on every side. It had a fine church and outstanding clergy, church elders and parishioners, who were a credit to their village. As for Father Ion, who lived at the foot of the hill, Lord, what an active and kindly man he was! On his advice lots of trees were planted in the graveyard—which graveyard was surrounded by a high fence of thick planks with eaves of shingles—and the fine room at the gate of the church precincts was built to serve as a village school. You should have seen this untiring priest going round the village, entering one house after another, together with one of his elders, Master Vasile, the son of Ilioaia, a sturdy, good-looking, handsome bachelor. The two of them would persuade people to send their children to get some schooling, and you should have seen the number of boys and girls who flocked into the school from all parts, myself among them, a puny, timid lad, afraid of my own shadow!
Now the brightest schoolchild was the priest's own little Smaranda, a mischievous, high-spirited girl, quick-witted and so active that she used to put all the boys to shame in both learning and pranks. However, the priest came to the school almost every day and he saw how things were going. And one fine day it happened that he came to the school carrying a new, long bench. Having enquired of the dominie how we were each getting on, he reflected for a little while, then named the bench Dapple-Grey and left it behind in the school.
Another day, the priest came again into the school, with old Fotea, who used to make sheepskin coats for the village, and who brought a dear little tawse made of leather thongs, all beautifully plaited, as a gift for the new school. The clergyman named it St. Nicholas, after the patron saint of Humuleşti. Then he invited old Fotea, when he came across some good pieces of leather, to make another one from time to time, if possible somewhat thicker and stronger. At that Master Vasile smiled and we schoolchildren stood staring at one another. Then the priest laid down the law and said that there should be revision every Saturday for all the boys and girls, in other words that the dominie should examine each and every one in what had been learned during the week; for each mistake made a stroke should be scored in charcoal on a slate or something and eventually every mistake should bring down a blow from St. Nicholas upon the offending child.
Upon which the priest's daughter, being giddy, thoughtless and full of whims and fancies, suddenly burst out laughing. So much the worse for her, poor thing! "Just come out here, young lady, and mount Dapple-Grey," said the priest now quite sternly, "and let us put St. Nicholas, who's hanging from the nail up there, to his proper business!" In spite of old Fotea's pleading and that of Master Vasile, little Smaranda got a good hiding and afterwards sat crying into her cupped hands like a bride, so that the very blouse shook on her back. When we saw this, we were quite dumbfounded.
Meanwhile, from time to time, the priest would bring small coins and cakes from the church offerings and give each his share, so that he tamed us, and the work went ahead like wildfire. The boys set up a fresh blackboard each day, and on Saturdays there was revision.
We still went our own ways occasionally, there's no doubt about that! Starting with the sheet of paper stuck into a wooden holder, a sheet bearing the sign of the Blessed Cross and the letters of the alphabet, written out by Master Vasile for each one of us, we passed on to the shorter catechism and from thence to the breviary, and from then on we were well away! When priest and teacher were absent, we would go into the churchyard, keeping the prayerbook open; as the leaves were somewhat greasy, the flies and the bumblebees would come to them in swarms, and when we suddenly clapped the book shut, we killed off ten or twenty of them at one blow. What wholesale destruction we wrought upon the race of flies!
One day what should come into the priest's head but to inspect our prayerbooks. Seeing them all bloodstained, he clutched his head in horror. As soon as he found out how they had got into this shocking state, he summoned each one of us in turn to Dapple-Grey's back and began to belabour us with St. Nicholas, bishop in partibus, as retribution for the pains the martyred flies and the holy bumble-bees had suffered at our hands.
Not long after this, one day in the month of May, close upon the Whitsun Moşi1 festival, the Evil One prompted Master Vasile, the blockhead, for I have no better word for him, to appoint a fellow called Nică, Costache's son, to test my knowledge. Nică, who was older than me and whose scholarship was a trifle more than non-existent, had quarrelled with me on account of little Smaranda, whom, one day, with every sign of regret, I had been forced to shove away because she would interfere with my catching flies. So Nică began to examine me, and just went on examining and examining and didn't he just score mistakes wholesale on a piece of shingle: one, two, three, and so on up to twenty-nine! "My word, this is past a joke," I said to myself. "He has not yet finished examining me, and think of all the mistakes to come!" All of a sudden, everything went black in front of me and I began to tremble with anger. "Well, well, I am in a hole! What's to be done about it?" I kept asking myself. Slyly I glanced at the door of salvation and kicked my heels impatiently, waiting for some loiterer outside to come in, for there was a school rule that two people should not walk out at the same time. My heart was fit to burst within me seeing that no one would come in and give me a chance of escaping mounting Dapple-Grey and receiving the blessing of St. Nicholas, that dispenser of black and blue. Yet the true St. Nicholas seems to have been mindful of me, for, lo and behold, that blessed boy walked into the schoolroom. Whereupon, by your leave or not, I made for the door, slipped out quickly, and, with no hanging about the school, took to my heels homewards! A glance over my shoulder showed me two hulking brutes already on my tracks. Then didn't I just start running so fast that my feet struck sparks out of the ground! I passed our house without going in, I turned left and entered the yard of one of our neighbours; from the yard I went into the stableyard, and from the stableyard into the maize field, newly hoed and earthed up, with the boys after me. Before they reached me, scared out of my wits as I was, I somehow managed to burrow into the mound at the root of a maize stalk. My enemy, Nică, Costache's son, with Toader, Catinca's son, an equally loathsome brute, passed by me, saying just what they were going to do to me. Surely the Lord blinded them, so that they could not find me! After a while, hearing no rustling of maize leaves, not even a hen scratching the ground, I suddenly darted out, with earth on my head, and rushed home to mother and began telling her with tears in my eyes that I would not go back to school, no, not if they were to kill me. The next day, however, the priest came to our house and settled things with father; they calmed me down and took me back to school again. "For really, it's a pity to be left without any education," the priest was saying; "you are now past your ABC, you're working on the prayerbook, and, one of these days, you'll go on to the psalter, which is the key to all wisdom. And who can tell what time has in store for us? Maybe you'll live to become the priest here, at the church of St. Nicholas, because it's for the likes of you that I take the pains I do. I have an only daughter, and I shall think seriously about my choice of a son-in-law."
Heigh ho! Once I heard of the priesthood and of our priest's little Smaranda, I gave up the flies completely and turned my thoughts to other things. I began to take to writing, to preparing the censer in church, to singing second, as if I were a respectable youngster. The priest put me down in his good books and little Smaranda flashed a glance at me now and then; Master Vasile entrusted the coaching of other boys to me, and, as the saying goes, a different kind of flour was now being ground in the old mill. Nică, Costache's son, loutish and bullying, with his grating voice, had no further hold over me. But man proposes and God disposes!
One day, in actual fact it was St. Foca's Day, the mayor ordered the villagers out to repair the road. The rumour went that the Prince was going to ride that way to visit the monasteries. Master Vasile found nothing better to do than to say: "Come on, boys, let's help with that road, so that the Prince shan't say, as he passes through, that our village is lazier than the others."
So we all set out from school together. Some of us dug with spades, some carried stones in wheel-barrows, some in carts, some in kneading-troughs; in short, the people worked with a will. The mayor Nică, son of Petrica, with the overseer, the deputy-mayor and a couple of tousle-headed clerks, were moving to and fro among the people, when, all of a sudden, what should we see but a scuffle on the gravel, a crowd of people in a confused heap and one of them yelling out loudly. "What can this mean?" people were saying, as they ran from all sides.
Master Vasile had been caught with a lasso by the press-gang; they were now roping him tight and handcuffing him, preparatory to sending him off to the town of Piatra. So that's why the mayor had summoned the people to communal labour! This was the way with deceptions such as these, that young men were in those days press-ganged into military service... This was an evil sight indeed! The other young men vanished instantly, and as for us children, back we went to our homes, crying. "Curse that dog of a mayor, and, as he has seared a mother's heart, so may today's saint, Foca, burn his heart within him and the hearts of all his accomplices too!" wailed the women of the village, cursing and weeping scalding tears, on all sides. Meanwhile Master Vasile's mother was seeing her son to Piatra and bewailing him as if he were dead. "Never mind, mother, the world is not just the size of the bit of it we can see with our own eyes," Master Vasile was saying to comfort her. "A man can live in the army as well as anywhere, if there's mettle in him. St. George and St. Dmitri and other holy martyrs were soldiers too, who suffered for the love of Christ; pray God we may live up to their example!"
Well, well, we'd lost Master Vasile; he had gone where fate decreed.
Father Ion was now walking about, his long locks floating in the wind, looking for another dominie, but he failed to find a second Master Vasile, quiet, hard working, and as shy as a maid. There was, of course, Iordache, the elder in the front pew, who spoke through his nose; but what good was he? True, he had got the church chants2 by heart, but he was so old that his teeth chattered and, moreover, he was overfond of his drink. So the school stood deserted for a time. For some of us who clung to Father Ion things went none too badly: it is the church that enlightens a man.
On Sundays we would hum away in the pew and, slap! bang! there was a cake for each of us pinched from the offerings! When the eve of each of the two great festivals came round, some thirty or forty boys would run before the priest, wearing a path through the snow between one house and the next. At Christmas we would neigh like foals, while on Twelfth Night we would bawl the Kirie Eleison until the village resounded. As Father Ion approached, we would stand in two lines and make way for him. Then he would pull his beard and say proudly to the host: "These are the clergyman's foals3, my son. They look forward joyfully to great festive days like these throughout the whole year. Have you cooked broad beans, forcemeat balls, hemp tarts and cabbage pies for them?" "We have, indeed, holy Father. Please come in and bless our house, and please sit yourselves down so that matchmakers and suitors may do likewise." No sooner did we hear a meal mentioned than we fell to. Look out, mouth, here's food coming! As the saying goes: Pies make the mouth rejoice, and cabbage pies even more.
Our behaviour was only natural, since there are only two such festive eves in the year. At one place, I remember, we crowded round so enthusiastically that we knocked the table over, dishes and all, in the middle of the room, bringing furious blushes to our priest's cheeks. Yet all he said, very good-naturedly, was: "Where nothing is spread, there's nothing to spill, my sons, but a little restraint wouldn't come amiss!"
Then, when the patronal festival came round, the feasting would last a whole week. All you wanted was a belly in which to stow away the corn-meal cake4 and the various viands, so numerous were they. Elders and priests and bishops and all sorts of people from every part came together at this festival at Humuleşti, and they all left highly content. What is more, a lot of strangers were well received in private houses. Mother, God rest her soul, rejoiced greatly when visitors happened to drop in and there was occasion to break bread with them. "Perhaps my sons will bestow alms in memory of me, when I am dead, and perhaps they won't; it's better to bestow them with my own hand. Anyhow, near is my shirt, but nearer is my skin! It wouldn't be the first time it happened!"
While I was learning at school, mother was keeping up with me at home, and she was reading the prayer-book, the psalter and the Book of Alexander5 better than I could, and she greatly rejoiced when she saw that I took to book learning.
As for my father, he would often tease me:
If he had had his way I might well have stayed where I was well off, like Nică, Stefan's son and Petre's grandson, a very decent fellow and a farmer in Humuleşti. As the saying goes: Better a big fish in a little pond than a small tiddler in the ocean.
Mother, however, would gladly have spun the distaff had that been necessary to enable me to go on with book learning, and she was constantly nagging father to send me to school again somewhere else; for in church she had heard the saying from Proverbs that the learned man should have wisdom and be a master to the unlearned, who should serve him.
Moreover all the old women who read the future in forty-one maize grains thrown into a sieve, all who dabbled in astrology, all the people who told fortunes by cards, whom she had consulted on my behalf, all the church-going women of the village had stuffed her head full of fantasies, each stranger than the other, such as: that I should dwell among the great, that I had more luck than a frog has hair, that I had an angelic voice, and many such wonders. As a result of all this mother, in the weakness she had for me, had come to believe that I should turn out a second Cucuzel, that ornament of Christendom, who could draw tears out of every stony heart, collect together innumerable hosts of people in the depths of the forest and gladden the entire creation with his song.
"Great heavens, woman, you're mightily lacking in judgment," father used to say, seeing her so passionately wrapped up in my future. "If they were all to turn out full of book learning, as you think they should, there'd be no one left to pull off our boots. Haven't you heard the story of the chap that went to Paris, wherever that may be? He went an ox and came back a cow! Now, there's Grigore, son of Petre and grandson of Luca, in our village. What schools did he go to to learn to make such witty speeches and to act as usher-and reciter of the nuptial poem at weddings? Can't you see that if a fellow has no nous, he just hasn't, and that's the end of the matter?"
"Maybe it is, maybe it isn't," mother said. "I want my boy to be a priest, and what have you to say against that?"
"A priest, eh! no less," said father. "Really, now! Can't you see that for a lousy, lazy good-for-nothing he has no equal? The struggle you have to get him up in the morning! And as soon as you've got him up, he clamours for food. Now that he's small, he catches flies in his prayer book and goes up and down the riverbanks all day long looking for bathing-places, instead of leading those horses out to graze and helping me with various jobs, as far as he is able. In winter he's for ever on the ice and the sledge runs. You and your fancy education have got him into a bad way. As soon as he's grown up a bit he'll begin sniffing at a skirt, and, as things are, he'll never be any good to me!"
So, as I have the honour to tell you, there was much talk going on between mother and father on account of me, until that summer, round about August, the Right Honourable cholera of 1848 stepped in and began working such havoc on the people of Humuleşti, right and left, that there was nothing to be heard save weeping and sorrow.
As for myself, little devil that I was, I used to stand by the fence when they drove the hearse past our gate and chant a jingle over the dead man:
Or again, I would walk in the procession to the church and return with my shirt stuffed full of pretzels, sour-sweetish apples, walnuts in tinsel, carobs and dried figs from the dead man's tree, so laden that my father and mother crossed themselves with wonder when they saw me with such goodies. To get me out of harm's way, they sent me to the sheepfold in the coppice of Agapia, close by the bridge of Cărăgiţa, where our own sheep were grazing, to stay there until the sickness had abated somewhat; but the very same night the cholera struck me down, tearing at my bowels and causing me to double up in two, as if in a vice. My vitals were burning within me for thirst, yet the shepherds and their chief took no notice at all; I screamed and they just turned over in their sleep and snored on. So I crept as best I could to the well behind the sheepfold and drank a pailful of water in no time. The well deserved the name of my headquarters that night, and I never closed my eyes long enough for a spark to be struck from a flint.
It was only at daybreak that Vasile Bordeianu, our joiner, took pity on me and went to Humuleşti, two hours' walk away, and told father, who came with a horse and cart to fetch me home. All the way I never stopped asking for water, while father wheedled me out of it from one well to another, till at last, with God's help, we reached Humuleşti.
When we got here, the village healers, old Vasile Tandură and another fellow whose name I can't remember, were in the house heating some skins of pressed grapes in tallow in a great cauldron upon the fire. After they had given me a thorough good rub with lovage macerated in vinegar, they spread the warm husks upon a piece of cloth and swaddled me up as they would a baby. In no time at all I fell into a dead sleep and did not wake up until vespers on the following day—as fit as a fiddle. God rest old Tandură and his helper! As the proverb has it: A bad penny always turns up. Before nightfall I had already gone the round of the village, and even had a look at the bathing-place with my friend Kiriac, son of Goian, a lazybones and a ne'er-do-well like myself. But father never said a word to me then. He left me to my own devices for the time being.
During the winter mother was again on at father to send me to school somewhere; but father said there was no more money to be spent on me.
"I used to pay just one sorocovăţ6 a month to Vasile, the church elder, son of Vasilca, while that scamp Simion Fosa, the church elder from Tutuieni, wants three husaşi7 a month just because he talks in riddles and takes snuff all day long. I ask you! This boy, clothes and all, is not worth as many husaşi as he's cost me so far!"
When mother heard that, she blew up.
"You poor fool! Since you have not a scrap of book learning, how can you understand? When you're putting away those sorocoveţi under your moustaches, that's the time to make a fuss! Hasn't Petre, son of Todosica, our publican, had nine hundred lei8 off you, and Vasile Roibu, in Bejeni, and many others of the same kidney, almost as many? Isn't there plenty and to spare for Rusca, Valică's wife, and Onofrei's Măriuca? I know more than you think. Don't you believe that Smaranda's asleep. You're a fine one to sleep the sleep of the just, you are! So, you've no money to spend on your own son! Listen, my man, you'll plunge to the bottom of hell and there'll be no one to get you out, if you don't do your best to get one of your sons to be a priest. You avoid confession as the devil avoids incense. You don't go to church from one Easter Sunday to the next. Is that your way of looking after your soul?"
"Now do be quiet, woman! The church is in a man's conscience, and when I'm dead, I'll lie by the church for ever," father said. "Don't you carry on in this way like the hypocritical Pharisee. Rather beat your breast and say as the publican did: Lord, be gracious unto me a sinner who am worrying the life out of my husband and wasting my breath in vain."
In the end, after all the argument between mother and father on my account, mother won the day; for on the last Sunday before Lent, mother's father, that was my grandfather David Creangă from Pipirig, came to our house and seeing the difference that had arisen between father and mother on account of me, he said:
"Never you mind, Stefan and Smărănduca, leave off worrying; today is Sunday, tomorrow Monday and market day, but Tuesday if we reach it hale and hearty, I'll take my grandson along with me to Broteni, with my son Dumitru, to Neculai Nanu, the master of the school founded by Baloş; and you just wait and see what he makes of this boy, for I was highly satisfied with what my other sons Vasile and Gheorghe were taught. These twenty years that I've been mayor at Pipirig, I've only had difficulty with the accounts. What's the good of my reading any ecclesiastical book? If you can't put things down in writing, be it never so little, it's hard. But since my sons have been back from school they keep the accounts for me, every blessed coin, and I just take it easy; I now say with complete confidence that you may be mayor for a lifetime and never feel it a burden. My word, a good deed Alecu Baloş has done with that school of his for anyone who'll take the trouble to learn; and, Lord, what a wise and capable teacher he has found! He talks so gently and he receives everyone so kindly that it is a pleasure to visit him. He's a credit to the parents who bore him. Such a kindly soul of a man, there's no gainsaying it. And for us mountain people particularly it is a great blessing! More than sixty years ago, when I came with father and my brothers Petrea, Vasile and Nică from Transylvania to Pipirig, such schools were not to be found. Maybe at Jassy or at the Neamţ monastery there might have been some such thing in the time of the Metropolitan Jacob; he was distantly related to us through Ciubuc, the bell-ringer at Neamţ, your mother's grandfather, daughter Smaranda, whose name stands engraved to this day upon the church bell in Pipirig. Ciubuc, the bellringer, had learned his letters in Transylvania, like myself, and then he left those parts and wandered away, as we did; he came over here with his belongings, like old Dediu of Vinatori and other mocani9 mainly to avoid being turned into a papist, as far as I know. He was so comfortably off that his sheepfolds and herds of cattle spread over mountain after mountain: Hălăuca, Iepure's Crag, Dărnariul, Cotnărelul and Boampele away behind Pătru Vodă. This Ciubuc was said to be a decent, generous fellow; every traveller who stopped at his house was hospitably received and fare in plenty was placed before him. He was famous far and wide for his kindness and riches. The Prince himself is reported to have once put up at his house, and upon his asking with what men he held together such a sea of belongings Ciubuc is said to have answered: "With those weak of mind but strong of body, your Highness." Then the Prince could hardly conceal his surprise and he said: "Now here's a man indeed, I'll vouch for it. Were there many such under me, the country would be safe in time of need." And the Prince gave him a friendly tap on the shoulder saying to him:
"Nuncle, remember that you're my man from now on, and my door is always open to you."
From that time on Ciubuc was known as the Prince's man, so that to this day, a certain hill over by the Plotun, where Ciubuc was usually to be found, is called Man's Hill.
Upon this hill, daughter Smaranda, we took refuge at the time of the 1821 uprising, with your mother, yourself and your brother Ion, scared off by a band of Turks who had been recently fighting the volunteers at Secu and were then making their way to Pipirig in search of plunder; and, being in such a hurry, we had left behind your baby sister Mariuca in her wooden cradle, upon the verandah. When your mother discovered that the child was missing, she began to tear the hair of her head and to bewail her in a subdued voice, saying:
"Woe is me, woe is me, my child has been stabbed to death by the Turks!"
I then climbed to the very top of a fir tree and as soon as I saw the Turks turning towards Plotun I madly jumped upon the back of a horse, galloped home and found the baby safe and sound, but cradle and all had been overturned by some pigs who were rootling around, ready to tear her to pieces. At one end of the cradle I found a few Turkish coins, which the Turks, as it seemed, had placed by the child's head. Then I picked the child up and I was so overjoyed that I don't know how I got back to your mother on Man's Hill. When I had recovered a bit, I said bitterly like many another before me: "Those who have no children do not know what trouble is." Some people are sensible in this respect and stay unmarried. One such person was Ciubuc, the sheepowner, who later on in life, having no wife and child, moved by his deep piety or by other circumstances, made over all his goods and chattels to the Neamţ monastery and became a monk with almost all his herdsmen, chanting many a mass during his lifetime; and now he rests in peace under the walls of the monastery, may the Lord's grace be upon him, and may he rest in peace in the kingdom of heaven! For we, too, shall make our way thither very soon! Now, you'd have had no inkling of all those happenings if I hadn't told you, would you?" grandfather said with a sigh.
"It's a good thing, my son, that your boy should have some book learning, not necessarily in order to be ordained, as Smaranda plans, for a priest's calling is an exacting business and difficult to fulfil, and if he's not to be the right sort, better none at all. Yet book learning brings some consolation in itself. If I hadn't been able to read, I should long since have been out of my mind with all the troubles I've had to bear. But I have only to open the Lives of the Saints and therein do I find all kinds of things and I say: 'Lord, great is the endurance that Thou hast granted Thy chosen ones. Our hardships are child's play compared to what we read about in the books.' Besides, it's no good for anyone to be a complete ignoramus. There is much wisdom to be got out of books and, truth to tell, you're no longer just a cow for anyone to milk. The boy, as I can judge, has a good memory, and considering the amount of schooling he has had he sings and reads as well as one could wish."
These and other such things grandfather David talked over with mother and father all through the night from Sunday to Monday and Monday to Tuesday; for he used to stay with us when he came from Piping to market, to buy the things he needed.
On Tuesday at daybreak he placed the wooden saddles and the pairs of bags across the horses' backs; then neatly tying the bridle of the second to the tail of the first, the third to the tail of the second, the fourth to the tail of the third, as mountain people do, he said:
"Now, you two, Stefan and Smaranda, God keep you in good health, for I'm about to set off. Come, grandson, are you ready?"
"Ready, grandfather, off we go!" I said, giving my full attention to some smoked pork chops and some fried sausages that mother had placed before me.
Taking leave of my parents I proceeded with grandfather on my way to Pipirig. There was a bit of a frost that morning sharp enough to split wood. And just above Vînători, as we were crossing the bridge over a tributary of the River Neamţ, grandfather walking behind holding the horses' bridles, myself walking in front of him, my boots slipped and I fell full length into the Ozana! Thank God grandfather was there! "Now, those worn-out boots of yours are just too silly," he said, quickly lifting me out of the water, soaked to the skin and frozen to the bone for water had leaked in everywhere.
He quickly took off my shoes, which were frozen stiff. "A good old-fashioned wrap-around boot's the thing! Your foot feels comfortable in it and when it's frosty you're as snug as can be." In the time it took to say this I found myself already wrapped up in a fluffy shepherd's coat from Casina, crammed into a bag on horseback, on and away to Pipirig. And when grandmother saw me and the state I was in, stuck in that bag like some waif, she nearly dissolved into tears. Never yet have I seen such a woman, to cry over every little thing; she was soft-hearted beyond all measure. She did not eat meat, ever, for the same reason, and on holy days, when she went to church, she wept for all the dead in the churchyard, kin or strangers, it made no difference. Grandfather, however, was an extremely level-headed fellow; he minded his business as he saw fit and left grandmother to her own devices, like the mere woman that she was.
"Good Lord, David, what will you be up to next? Why ever must you fetch the boy out in this weather?"
"Just to give you something to marvel at, Nastasia," grandfather said, fetching a wild boar's hide out of the lumber room and cutting out a pair of wrap-around boots for Dumitru and another for myself. Then he gathered them nicely and threaded a pair of horse-hair bindings through the little hooks.
On the next day but one, provided with clean underwear and two pairs of foot wrappings made of stiff white cloth, we slipped on our new boots and having kissed grandmother's hand, we took the Boboeşti road, with grandfather once more as well as Dumitru, mother's youngest brother. After climbing behind the Hălăuca, we eventually reached Fărcaşa, and that was our resting place for the night. Our company there was father Dumitru from a place called Pirăul Cîrjei, who had a goitre upon his neck as big as a large wine flask, and he would cackle and drone like a bagpipe so that I got not a wink of sleep on account of him all night long. He was not to blame, poor man, and as he himself used to say: "Those who have a goitre in the head are worse off than those who wear it outwardly."
Next day we left Fărcaşa, passing through Borca to the Stream of Cîrja and Cotîrgeni and so on till we reached Broşteni. Having placed us in lodgings at his own expense, in the house of a woman whose name was Irinuca, grandfather then took us to call upon the teacher, took us to the church and made us cross ourselves before all the icons and then left us with his blessing and went home, occasionally sending us what was needful.
Now the village of Broşteni being spread out like most mountain villages, the wolf was not shy of putting in an appearance in broad daylight. The houses were dotted about irregularly, one under a steep hollow bank, another beyond the Bistriţa nestling in another such ravine, in short, wherever man found it convenient to build a house. Irinuca had an old hut, built of wooden logs, with windows as broad as the palm of your hand, roofed with planks, fenced in with roughhewn pieces of fir, standing right under a steep descent, on the left bank of the Bistriţa, close to the bridge. Irinuca was a woman neither very young nor very old; she had a husband, as well as a daughter, so ugly, cross-eyed and dowdy that you were afraid to spend the night under the same roof with her. Fortunately from Monday morning till Saturday night she was not to be seen. She went up the mountains with her father wood-chopping, and she would work there like a man all the week long for practically nothing, Conditions were such that two people with two oxen could hardly earn their keep in winter time. Nay, it happened to many a man that he came back of a Saturday night with a broken leg or with his oxen badly hurt, and this he had to accept into the bargain!
The hut on the left bank of the Bistriţa, the man, the girl and the oxen in the woods, one hilly-goat and two lean scabby nannies which always slept in the lobby, that was Irinuca's whole fortune. Yet that really is a fortune when you're strong and healthy. But what business is that of mine? Let us rather get back to our own business.
The very next day, after grandfather had gone back home, we two went to school. The teacher seeing that we wore our hair long ordered one of the scholars to cut it off. When we heard those dread words, we began to cry our hearts out and to beg in the name of all the gods, that we should not be made frights of. But no, we had mistaken our man; the teacher stood by and had our heads cropped close. Then we joined the ranks of the other pupils and he set up things to learn according to our ability; among other things we had to get "The angel cried aloud" by heart.
We went on like that right into mid-Lent.
One fine morning we woke up covered from head to toe with goats' scab, caught from Irinuca's goats. Heyday, what was to be done? The teacher couldn't have us in the schoolroom, Irinuca could not cure us, there was nobody to let grandfather know, our provisions were almost eaten up—an evil plight indeed!
I don't quite know how it came about but close upon the Day of the Annunciation a sudden spell of warm weather set in, such as you've never seen the like of; and the snow melted, and the streams flowed and the Bistriţa swelled between its two banks nearly carrying Irinuca's house away.
And during those warm days we would anoint our bodies with newly boiled lye, would then lie in the sun till the ashes stood dry upon our skins and then step into the Bistriţa and bathe. An old woman had taught us this as a means of getting rid of the scab. You can imagine what it meant to bathe twice a day in the Bistriţa at Broşteni, before Easter. Neither shooting pains, nor ague, nor any other sickness did we get, nor did we get rid of the scab for that matter. As the saying goes: it clings to a man, like the scab.
One day Irinuca having gone into the village where she would lose all sense of time, what should we do but climb the steep slope behind her house, each carrying a roughhewn plank in our hands; the streams were coming down something wonderful, one particularly as white as boiling milk. The devil prompted us to shift a rock that was precariously balanced, whereupon the boulder started capering down and bouncing head high, and it went right through Irinuca's fence and the lobby where the goats lived and made straight for the Bistriţa, setting the waters a-boiling! This happened on St. Lazarus's Day about noon. What in Heaven's name was to be done? The woman's fence and house smashed to bits, a she-goat crushed to pieces, that was no joke! Scab and all were now forgotten in this fright.
"Be quick and get your things together before the old woman comes and let us run away and catch that raft to my brother Vasile's at Borca," said Dumitru, since the rafts were already on the move.
We caught up what few things we had, hurried down to the rafts and the raftsmen readily agreed and cast off. What Irinuca said behind our backs, what she didn't, I do not know; one thing I do know is that I was scared stiff all the way to Borca which was the goal of our voyage. And next day, which was Palm Sunday, we left Borca at daybreak in the company of two peasants from the mountains, riding their horses; we cut across the Old Highlands way down to Pipirig. That Sunday was a fine day and the peasants were saying that they had never seen such an early spring, not since they were born.
Dumitru and I never stopped singing, gathering bluebells and violets on the hill side, playing and capering as if we had nothing in common with those scabby fellows in Broşteni who had worked such blessings upon Irinuca's house. And as we were going along like this, about noon the fine weather suddenly changed into a fearful whirlwind, which literally brought fir trees crashing to the ground. Maybe old Mother Dochia10 had not taken off all her sheepskin coats.
It began to drizzle, it turned to sleet, then it grew cold and started to snow in earnest and in a twinkling the road was blocked and there was no knowing which way to turn. There was snow and mist everywhere, so that a man could not see his companion though they were walking side by side.
"We've given the weather the evil eye," one of the peasants said with a sigh. "I did think it strange that the wolf should have swallowed the winter so speedily. We've lost our way round about the weaning folds. Now let us cut across country at random and go where fate takes us."
"I seem to hear a cock crowing," the other man said. "Let us go that way, maybe we'll come across some village."
Down we went and down again, with great difficulty down perilous slopes, getting tangled in the undergrowth of a fir copse and the horses would slip and roll downhill. Dumitru and I walked shivering and crying into our fists with cold. The peasants just groaned and bit their lips in anguish. The snow was waist-deep in certain places and night had begun to fall when we came to a dead end in the mountains where one could hear the streamlet running, like ourselves, from the uplands into the valley, rushing and crashing against the rocks, whether it would or no. The only difference being that it went its way while we came to a standstill and were really in a desperate plight.
"Now boys, let us lie down and sleep it off," one of the men said, getting to work with his flint and tinder and setting a fir-tree alight.
"Whatever is ordained stands written upon a man's brow; make merry and be of good cheer," the other one said taking a large piece of cold mămăliga11 out of his saddlebag, toasting it lightly upon the cinders and giving us a piece each. That piece of mămăliga slipped more easily down our gullets than if it had been buttered! When we had done something to appease our hunger we curled up round the fire; snow overhead, sludge underneath; one side of us was freezing, the other baking as befitted the time and place.
And while we were thus tossing about, another trouble lay in store: the burning fir-tree very nearly scorched us to death, and we were only saved thanks to one of the mountain fellows. Maybe Irinuca's curse had now come upon us.
Day broke at last, and, having rubbed our bodies with snow and crossed ourselves according to the custom of Christians, we set off with the two peasants climbing back all the way we had come. The snow was not falling so thickly now and after a good deal of trouble we found our way. On and on we trudged and towards nightfall we reached grandfather David's at Pipirig. And no sooner did grandmother see us than she burst into tears of joy.
"I verily believe this David of mine will bring me to the grave with his goings on. Just look at the sores on them, poor darlings! The scab has eaten into them among those strangers, poor lambs!"
After she had sympathized with us and wept over us, as it was her wont to do, and after she had crammed us full of the choicest things she had to eat, she went into the pantry, fetched a jugful of birch ointment, annointed our bodies from top to toe and bade us lie upon the stove and keep warm. She rubbed the ointment into us two or three times a day and during the night as well, so that on Good Friday we were as fit and smoothskinned as ever. By that time tidings had also come, from Broşteni, of the havoc we had wrought there and grandfather, without protesting too much, settled with Irinuca for four gold ducats. Then, on Black Saturday, he sent me home to Humuleşti, and on Easter Day I sang out such an "Angel cried aloud" in church, that the whole congregation gaped at me, and mother felt like swallowing me whole with joy. Father Ion sat me down at table with him, and little Smaranda cracked plenty of red eggs with me12, and joys of all sorts were pouring down upon me.
Yet the second Easter service was not such a success, for all the girls in the village had come to church; some of them being more frivolous, burst out laughing as soon as ever they set eyes on me and kept on chanting:
Bucharest, September, 1880
by Ion Creangă
I don't pretend to know what other people are like, but for myself, I seem to feel my heart throb with joy even to this day when I remember my birthplace, my home at Humuleşti, the post supporting the flue of the stove, round which mother used to tie a piece of string with tassels at the end of it, with which the cats played till they dropped exhausted, the flat ledge of the stove that I used to cling to when I was pulling myself up and learning to walk, the place on top of the stove where I used to hide when we children played at hide-and-seek, as well as other games and delights full of childlike fun and charm. Lord, what good times those were, for parents and brothers and sisters were hale and hearty, there was everything needful in the house, the sons and daughters of our neighbours were for ever romping with us, and everything was exactly as I liked best, without a shadow of ill-humour as if the whole world were mine! I myself was as happy as the day was long, whimsical and playful like the gusting wind.
Mother, who was well-known for her spells and cantrips, would say to me sometimes with a smile as the sun peeped from behind the clouds after prolonged rain: "Go outside, you fair-haired child, and laugh at the sun, maybe the weather will change." And the weather did change at my smile.
The sun no doubt knew what I was capable of, for I was my mother's son, and she in truth could work wonders: she would chase away the black clouds overhanging our village and drive the hail away into other places by sticking the axe into the ground, outside the door; she would so curdle water by means of a couple of beef bones that the people crossed themselves in amazement; she would hit the ground, the wall or any wooden thing that I bumped my head against saying: "Take that!" and forthwith the pain was gone.
When the red embers moaned in the stove, which is supposed to foretell wind and bad weather, or when the embers hissed, a sign that someone is talking about you, mother would scold the hearth and beat it with a poker to make the enemy shut up. More than that, if I didn't look as well as she thought I ought to, she would immediately lick her finger and make a muddy mixture with dust from the heel of her shoe, or, if she was in much of a hurry for that, she would take soot from the stove and say: "As heel or stove are free of the evil eye so let my baby be free of it!" and she would make a mark on my forehead lest her precious pet come to harm. These and many more things did she do.
That's what mother was like when I was a child, full of strange and wonderful practices, as far as I remember; and well do I remember, for she rocked me in her arms as I sucked at that sweet breast of hers and nestled in her bosom, babbling and fondly looking up into her eyes! I have taken my blood of her blood and my flesh of her flesh; I've learnt speech from her and wisdom from God at the time when a man has to distinguish between good and evil.
But time was craftily rushing by me and I grew up unawares; thoughts ever different crossed my mind and desires ever new stirred in my soul, and instead of growing wiser I grew more and more restless and my longings now knew no bounds. Fickle and deluding is man's thought and you soar upon its wings at the bidding of ceaseless yearnings and there is no peace until you're laid in your grave!
But woe to him who gives in to such thoughts! All unbeknownst the river of life is wafting and sucking you into the deep; and from the height of happiness you're suddenly cast down into the depths of sorrow.
Let us rather talk of the days of our youth, for youth alone is merry and innocent. And there, when all is said and done, is the truth of the matter.
What does it signify to a child when father and mother talk about the hardships of life, of what the morrow may hold in store for them, or when they are worried by harrying thoughts? Astride a stick a child thinks he is riding a most wonderful horse and gallops apace in high spirits, purposefully whips it and curbs it and shouts at it until you're deafened; and if he falls, he thinks it's the horse that's thrown him and it is the stick that bears the brunt of his anger.
That is what I was like at that happy age and that's what I think all children have been like ever since the beginning of the world, no matter what people may say.
Whenever mother was tired out and lay down a while to rest, we children would raise the roof. When father came home at night from the wood at Dumeniscu, frozen stiff and covered with hoarfrost, we would give him a fright by springing upon him, from behind, in the dark. And he, tired though he was, would catch hold of us, one by one, as in a game of blindman's buff, and would lift us to the ceiling saying: "What a tall boy!" and he would kiss us to his heart's content. When the rushlight was lit and father sat down to his meal, we would fetch the cats from their nooks in the stove or under the oven and we would rumple their fur and drill them before him so thoroughly that they had a rough time of it; and they couldn't get away, poor cats, before they had scratched and spat at us as we deserved.
"And there you are husband, looking at them and encouraging them, aren't you?" mother would say. "I say well done, cats! And as for you boys, you're a couple of rascals, for no living thing can find a shelter in this house because of you. There, since I've not given you a thrashing today, you plague those poor cats and jump upon a man as if you were dogs let loose! I'm blest if I don't think that sometimes you go a bit too far. Just let me get that stick from behind the rafter and I'll beat you black and blue."
"Come, leave them alone, wife, do! They are glad to see me back home, that's all," said father, swinging us up and down." They've not a care in the world: the wood is in, there's plenty of bacon and flour in the garret, cheese in the wooden tub, likewise, cabbage getting sour in the barrel, thank God! Let them just keep fit to eat and play now that they're small, for they'll get over romping as they grow up and cares gather around them; they won't escape that, never fear. Don't you know the saying: A child shall play; a horse shall draw; a priest shall read."
"It's easy for you to talk," said mother, "for you're not shut up in the house with them all day long, and that's enough to make your hair turn white and make you wish the earth would swallow them up, God forgive me! I wish the summer would come so that they could play outside a bit; for I've had so much of them that they set my teeth on edge like crab apples. All the devilish tricks that come into their minds, they put into practice. When the wood tapping1 begins to summon people to church, out rushes Zahei, that paragon of yours, and starts tapping the loom so that you can hear the very walls of the house creaking and the windows rattle. While Ion, that blockhead, with sheep-bell, tongs and fender raises such a hullabaloo as very nearly deafens your ears; then, with a rug on their backs and a paper cap on their heads, they sing:
until they drive you out of the house. And this goes on every day, two or three times a day, so that you would feel like giving them an almighty thrashing, if you were to take any notice of them."
"In a way it's as it should be, my good woman: you're a church-goer and known for it too, so the boys are providing you with a church-service to your heart's content on the spot; not that the church is so very far... From now on, set to work boys upon all-night vigils and as many odd ideas as you please, so that every day mother may give you honey buns, such as they have on the day of the Forty Martyred Saints, and corn-meal cake with ground walnuts."
"Indeed, are you in your right mind, my man? I did wonder why they're so good, poor dears; it's because you're encouraging them and backing them up. Just look at them, both sitting wide awake and staring into our eyes as if they were trying to make a portrait of us. Just you try to give them a job to do, then you'll see them dithering, sulking and whining," mother said. "Come now, off you go to bed, boys, for the night is soon gone, but what do you care as long as you get your food served up under your noses!"
When we had all gone to bed, children will be children: we'd start fighting and wouldn't sleep for giggling and tittering till mother, poor dear, must needs pull our hair and give us a few thumps in the back, and father, having had enough of such a row, would sometimes say to mother:
"Come, come, shut up! That's enough slapping and scolding. They're not old women who go to sleep standing up." But mother would then give us a few more thumps, saying:
"Take that and behave yourselves, you devils! I can't even rest at night because of your giggling."
In this way did my poor mother get some peace at last, God rest her now! But do you think that was the end of the matter? No fear! The following day at dawn, we would begin again, so mother took down "Godmother" again and thrashed us, but do you think that made any difference to us? You remember the saying:
Wicked, nasty skin
I recall as if they happened yesterday the things that came into our heads and all the myriads of things we did. Just try and remember every trifle of recent events and see if your mind is equal to the task, brother Ion. At Christmas when father killed the pig, singed and scalded it and quickly wrapped it up in straw to make it sweat, and thus easier to shave, I would bestride the pig, straw and all, and I would have the time of my life knowing that I would get the pig's tail to fry and the bladder to fill with grains, to blow it up and rattle when it was dry; and then alas, what a time mother's ears had of it, until she'd break it against my head!
But I mustn't lose the thread of my story!
One St. Basil's Day2, we boys of the village planned to take the New Year's plough3 round the village, for I was now in my teens, worse luck. And on the eve of that Saint's day I plagued father all day to make a bull drum4 for me; or, if not that, at least a fine whip.
"Heavens alive, I'll give you a whip, my boy," father said after a while. "Haven't you enough food at my house? Do you want those good-for-nothings to dump you in the snow? Just wait and I'll take your boots away, and then we'll see if you're so keen to go out."
Seeing that he was going on at me in this fashion, I slipped out of the house with only that pig's bladder, lest father should get hold of my boots and I be the laughing-stock of my comrades. And it somehow fell out that none of my companions had a bell. My cowbell was at home, but dare I go back for it? To make a long story short, we did our best and got together a broken scythe, a shaft-coupling, a pole-hook with a ring to it, together with my pig's bladder, and about vespers we started the round of the houses. And we began with Parson Oşlobanu's right up at the top of the village, planning to walk through the whole village. When we got there, the priest was outside his house sawing wood upon a trunk. As soon as he saw us standing under his windows and getting ready for carolling, he muttered a few oaths under his breath and said:
"The fowls have hardly gone to roost and here you are already! Just you wait a little, you little wretches and I'll give you something!"
Thereupon we took to our heels followed by the priest with a cudgel hard on us; for Parson Oşlobanu was an ill-tempered, crusty fellow.
We were so scared, we'd run halfway back through the village without having taken the opportunity to wish the priest:
A floor with fungus inches deep,
as carol singers will at those houses that won't receive them.
"My word, what a devilish wicked parson," we said once we were all together, stiff with cold and frightened to death; "the damned hedge-priest very nearly lamed us. May we live to see him carried upon the bier into the church of Saint Demetrius under the castle, to which he is now attached. None else but Old Nick could have bidden the monster come and build his house in our village. God forbid that our priests should be like him, for you wouldn't so much as taste any of the church offerings, ever!" By the time we had slandered the priest and said nasty things about him, and done a few other things, dusk had set in.
"Well, what are we to do now? Let us go into this yard," said Zaharia, son of Bâtlan, "for we're wasting time standing here in the middle of the road."
And in we went, to Vasile-Aniţei's and stood under the window as was usual. But for sure the Evil One was making charms: one fellow did not strike his scythe because he was cold, another because his hands were freezing upon the shaft-coupling; my cousin Ion Mogorogea, the polehook under his arm, would argue and wouldn't join in the carol-singing. It was enough to make your heart burst with anger.
"You do the wishing, Kiriac," I said to Goian. "You Zaharia and myself shall roar like bulls, and these other fellows will join in the chorus."
And we started right away. And what do you think happened? That mean wicked wife of Vasile-Anitei came at us with the redhot fire-rake she was using to rake out the fire before cooking the pastry in the oven.
"May the fire consume you!" she said, thoroughly incensed. "What do you think you're up to? Who had the nerve to teach you lot?"
Now run for it, boys, quicker than we ran from Parson Oşlobanu!
"A fine mess this!" we ponder, stopping at the crossroads in the middle of the village, close by the church. "One or two more welcomes like that and we'll be driven out of the village, like gipsies. We'd better go home to bed."
Having settled things for the following year and sworn a solemn oath to go carolling together, we parted, stiff with cold and weak with hunger, and off we each went to our own homes and mighty glad we were to see them. And that's the story of our carol-singing that year!
And when it came to creaming the milk-pots, what a pickle I got into.
Be it fasting time or carnival, as soon as mother started to put out the milk to curdle, the very next day I began licking the curd off the top and continued to do so, day after day, till I'd reached the sour milk beneath. When mother came to skim the cream, skim it, Smaranda, if there is any!
"Maybe the witches have worked a charm upon the cows, mummy," I would say crouching in front of mother, by the pots, my tongue hanging out of my mouth.
"Lord, let me just catch that hobgoblin by the cream pot," mother would say, giving me a searching look, "and leave him to me! 'Godmother' up there behind the rafter will doctor him, so that the whole tribe of ghosts and witches will not get him out of my hands. You can tell the ghost who's eaten the cream by his tongue, I never could stand a sponger and a sneak and that's the honest truth, my boy. And mind you, God won't prosper him who steals, whether it be clothes or foodstuffs or whatever it may be."
"That's done it! Strike a match and the house is on fire," I said to myself, for I was not so stupid as to miss the meaning of her words.
When it came to old Chiorpec, the shoemaker, our neighbour, the trouble I had with him, I can't describe; or rather, truth to tell, it was he who had trouble with me; for every few days I would go and worry the life out of him to get straps for a whip. More often than not I found old Chiorpec rubbing the finest birch-oil into the uppers of boots, making them as soft as cotton wool.
And this good man, seeing that there was no way of getting rid of me, would gently raise my chin with his left hand and with his right would dip the stick into the plateful of birch-oil and would give me a good rubbing round the muzzle, so that all the apprentices in the shop split their sides with laughing. And when I slipped out of his hands, I'd go back to mother's, running all the way, crying and spitting right and left.
"Look, mother, what that devil Chiorpec's done to me
"Lord, it's done as if for the asking," mother said, rejoicing. "I'll thank him, my word I will, when I meet him; for you stick like a burr wherever you go and drive a body out of his wits with your impertinence, idle wretch that you are!"
On hearing this I quietly washed my face round about my mouth and saw to my own troubles. And as soon as I'd forgotten the trick he'd played on me, back I'd run to old Chiorpec for straps, and as soon as he saw me come in, he'd say in high spirits: "Hi! welcome, young pig's chap!" and again he'd give me a good rubbing, making a laughing-stock of me, and again I'd run home, crying, spitting and cursing, and mother had an awful time with me because of that.
"I do wish winter would come, so that I could send you somewhere to school again", mother would say. "I'll ask the teacher to give me back just the skin off your back and the bones from your body."
It was summer time round about the Moşi festival when I slipped out of the house and went, in broad daylight, to uncle Vasile's, father's eldest brother, to steal cherries; for in his garden, and in a couple more places in the village, there stood a cherry tree the fruit of which used to ripen about Whit Sunday. I made very careful plans so as to get the cherries without being caught.
First I brazenly went into my uncle's house and asked if Ion could go swimming with me.
"He's not in," aunt Marioara said. "He's gone with your uncle Vasile, on the road by the Castle, to a fulling mill at Condreni to fetch back some coarse cloth."
By the way, I ought to tell you that in Humuleşti the spinning was done by both girls and boys, women and men; and the village made many rolls of cloth and homespun of grey wool which were sold by the yard or made up into garments, to Armenian merchants who came for the purpose from other towns: Focsani, Bacău, Roman, Tîrgu-Frumos and elsewhere. Our cloth was sold either in the village or at fairs all over the country. The inhabitants of Humuleşti lived chiefly by this. They were landless free peasants and itinerant merchants, trading in cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, cheese, wool, oil, salt, and maize flour; cloth coats—big ones, reaching down to the knees, and short ones—,tight trousers, white cloth trousers, night gowns; carpets, either square with floral designs, or narrow runners; spreads made of local silk with woven patterns, and sundry other things. These they took on Mondays to market or on Thursdays to convents, because the fairs were not easy for the nuns to get to.
"Well then, God be with you, aunt Marioara! And as I was saying, I'm sorry cousin Ion is not in for I'd have loved to have gone swimming with him."
But I said to myself: "I've done it. A good thing they're not in, and if they don't turn up soon, so much the better." And to cut a long story short, I kissed my aunt's hand, took my leave like a dutiful boy, left the house and pretended to go to the bathing-place, but by clever dodging one way and another I found myself in the good woman's cherry tree and started putting cherries into the front of my shirt, ripe or unripe, just as they came to hand. As I was anxiously hurrying on with the job as quickly as I could, I suddenly saw aunt Marioara, with a rod in hand, under the cherry tree!
"You devil, so this is how you go swimming, is it?" she said, her eyes fastened on me. "Come down, you thief, and I'll learn you!"
But how should I climb down when hell and destruction were down below at the foot of the tree? When she saw that I would not budge, two or three clods of earth came whizzing through the air at me but missed. Then she started hoisting herself up the tree saying: "Wait, you swine, you, she'll yet be the death of you, will Marioara, and pretty soon too!" Upon this I swung down on to a branch nearer the ground and all of a sudden I jumped slap into some hemp that was growing beneath the cherry tree; it was still green and waist high. That crazy aunt Marioara rushed after me, and I ran like a hare across the field of hemp with her on my heels to the fence at the bottom of the garden, but I'd no time to get over it, so back I turned, still across the hemp field, still running like a hare, with my aunt on my tracks, back to the cattle yard where again it was difficult to jump out, for there were fences everywhere along both sides and that skinflint of an aunt would not stop chasing me for the life of her! She very nearly laid hands on me! I went on running and she went on chasing, and between us we trod the whole field of hemp flat, and truth to tell, there were about ten or twelve prăjini5 of fine hemp as thick as a brush all ruined! And when we had done that bit of a job, my aunt somehow got tangled up in the hemp or stumbled against something and she went down. I then suddenly switched round like a swivel, took a couple of running jumps and vaulted over the fence without touching it, doubled back to cover my track, went home and was very good for the rest of the day.
But later that evening, along came uncle Vasile with the mayor and the watchman, and calling father to the gate, told him what had happened and summoned him to attend a hearing of the case and pay a fine and damages for the hemp and the cherries, for, if the truth must be told, uncle Vasile was a niggardly fellow and as much a skinflint as aunt Marioara. As the saying goes: they were like the two halves of an apple. It was not much use my saying anything. A man's work is his own concern. The evil was done and he who bore the blame had to pay. It is not the rich but the guilty who pay, says the old saw. And so father paid the fine for me and that was the end of that. And when he came back shamefaced and hurt from that restitution, he gave me the very grandfather of all hidings and said:
"There, take your fill of cherries! From now on, mind you, you've no more credit with me, you rascal! Do you think I'll go on paying much more in damages on your account?"
And that's how it was with the cherries; mother's word, poor dear, had come true full soon: that God will not help him who steals. Yet what good is compunction after death? And my own shame to boot! Just try to face aunt Marioara if you please, uncle Vasile, cousin Ion, or even the boys and girls of the village for that matter, especially on Sundays in church, at the hora6 where it's lovely to stand apart and look on, at bathing places or in Cierul Cucului7, this being a meeting place for young men and women who had been pining for one another throughout the week, while at work.
Believe it or not, I had made such a name for myself by the pranks I had been up to that I could hardly show my face abroad for shame, and this was just at the time when a few pretty girls were growing up in the village and when my heart had begun to flutter somewhat. As who should say:
But what can you do? It too will pass off in time; nothing for it but to grow a thick skin, and let sleeping dogs lie. It's been the same with many another trial that I've been through in life, not just matters of a year of two with a definite beginning and end, but recurrent troubles lasting several years, as one's turn comes round for grinding at the mill. And after all I did look out, in a kind of way, lest I walk into some sort of trap; but a very devil seemed to prompt me and I would stir up trouble in plenty.
Even after the cherry business a new trouble arose. One morning mother woke me up with the greatest difficulty saying:
"Get up, you lazy boy, before the sun rises, or do you want the Armenian cuckoo to poop on you so that everything will go wrong with you all day?" This was mother's way of pulling our legs about a hoopoe that had been nesting for many years in an old hollow lime tree, up the hill by the house of uncle Andrei, father's younger brother; and every day in the summer at daybreak you'd hear it calling: "Poo-poo-poop! Poo-poo-poop!" so that the village reechoed. And as soon as I got up mother promptly sent me off to carry rations into the fields where we had some gipsies hired to tend the maize, right away at Valea Seacă near Topoliţa.
No sooner did I set out with the rations than I heard the hoopoe singing:
"Poo-poo-poop! Poo-poo-poop! Poo-poo-poop!"
Could I stick to my course and leave it alone, I ask you? Not me. I went round by the lime-tree bent on catching that hoopoe, for I was fed up with the thing, not necessarily because of the pooping, as mother said, but because mother would wake me every day before sunrise on account of it. And as soon as I came level with the lime-tree, I left the rations on the path at the top of the hill, climbed quietly into the lime-tree that very nearly soothed you to sleep with the scent of its flowers, slipped my hand into a hole in the tree that I knew of, and what luck! I felt the bird sitting on its eggs and I said to myself delightedly: "Sit still, my pretty, for I've got you at last; a fat lot of pooping you'll do from now on!" And just as I was about to pull the bird out, I don't know how it happened, but I took fright at her fan-like feathery crest, for I hadn't ever seen a hoopoe before, and I let go of her, and back she dropped into the hole. And as I sat there telling myself that there weren't such things as feathered serpents—for I had heard tell that snakes were sometimes found in holes in trees—I took my courage in both hands and again slipped my hand inside to get the bird out, come what might, but she, poor creature, had vanished for fear of me somewhere into the recesses of that hole, and I couldn't find her anywhere. "My word! what an uncanny thing to happen," I said angrily, taking off my fur cap and stuffing it into the hole; I then climbed down again, looked for a slab of stone of the right shape and size, climbed back with it up the lime-tree, took my cap and placed the stone in its stead, thinking that the bird was sure to come out from wherever she was hiding by the time I'd got back from the fields. Then I climbed down again and set out at a good pace to take the victuals to those gipsies. But no matter how fast I walked, time had not stood still while I'd been knocking about goodness knows where, fussing and messing about in that lime-tree to catch the bird; and the gipsies, it goes without saying, had grown wild with hunger, while they were waiting. There's a saying that goes: A gipsy, when hungry, will sing; a gentleman will walk up and down with his hand behind his back, while a peasant will smoke his pipe and smoulder within himself.
So it was with these gipsies of ours; they were singing like mad upon that patch of land, leaning on the handles of their hoes, their sight dizzy with all that scanning of the distance to see whether their food was coming. When lo! about midday, there was I, popping up from behind a hillock, the food stone cold and I in two minds whether to approach them or not, as I listened to them singing so merrily. All of a sudden the dragons were upon me and would have swallowed me whole, if it hand't been for a younger gipsy woman among them who stood up for me:
"Heigh, stop it! Why do you go on at the boy? It's his father you've got a quarrel to pick with, not him!"
Thereupon the gipsies, forgetting me, fell to without another word.
As for myself, having thus saved my face, up with bag and dishes, and back to the village. I walked round by the lime-tree again, put my ear to the hollow and heard something flapping about inside; then I carefully removed the slab, slipped my hand in and fetched the hoopoe out, quite exhausted with so much struggling. As to the eggs, when I tried to lay hands on them, they were all just a squashed mess. After which I went home, tied the bird by the leg with a piece of string and kept it out of mother's way for a day or two, up in the loft, among the discarded wooden tubs; and every now and again up I would go to see the bird, so that the household wondered what I could possibly be doing that often up in the loft.
But the very next day after this, along came aunt Măriuca, wife of uncle Andrei, foaming at the mouth with anger and started quarrelling with mother on account of me:
"Now, did you ever hear such a thing, sister-in-law. Just fancy Ion stealing that hoopoe that has been waking us of a morning for so many years!" my aunt was saying plaintively. She was thoroughly upset and could hardly keep her tears back as she said this. I can see now that my aunt was absolutely right, for the bird had been the village clock. But mother, poor dear, had no inkling of what I had been up to.
"What's this you're saying, sister-in-law? I'd thrash the life out of him if I found out that he had caught the hoopoe to torment it. It's a good thing you've told me; leave it to me and I'll talk to him and worm the truth out of him."
"Don't you have any doubts about that, sister Smaranda", aunt said, "for nothing is safe from that imp of yours. It's no use; I've been told by people who saw him take it that Ion's the one who's got it. I'll bet my life on it!"
I was hiding in the pantry, and as soon as ever I heard what they were saying, up I climbed into the loft, snatched the bird from where it was hidden, jumped down with it under the eaves and made straight for the cattle market to sell it, for it was a Monday and market day. As soon as I reached the fair I began to walk up and down among the crowd, hoopoe in hand, for I wasn't a merchant's son for nothing. Now a foolish old man with a heifer at the end of a bit of rope had nothing better to do than to ask me:
"Are you selling that birdie, sonny?"
"Yes, indeed I am, gaffer."
"And what will you take for it?"
"Whatever you think it's worth!"
"Come, let's have a look at it and see what it weighs!"
No sooner had I handed it to him, than the mean wretch, pretending to feel it for eggs, gently loosened the string round its legs and threw it into the air, saying: "Bad luck, it's slipped out of my hand!" The hoopoe with a whirr of its wings landed on the roof of a booth and, having taken a short rest, flew off to Humuleşti leaving me open-mouthed and in tears, staring after it! I then clutched at the old man's coat to make him pay for the bird.
"What do you think you're up to, nuncle? Making so free with a man's goods? If you didn't feel like buying it, why did you let it go? You won't get away with it, mind you, not even with that heifer of yours. Have you got that straight? This is no joke, you know." And I stared the old man in the face and made such a racket that people crowded around us to see the fun; it was better than a peepshow.
"I say, you are a tough one, my boy!" said the old man after a while, laughing. "Why in Heaven's name are you carrying on like that, sonny? Now wouldn't you like to get my heifer for an Armenian cuckoo? It seems to me you're asking for a damn good hiding, you cheeky brat, and I'll give you one, if that's what you want. I'll lay into you so hard, my young fellow, that you'll thank your lucky stars, when I've done with you!"
"Leave the kid alone, nuncle", said a man from our village; "he's the son of Ştefan, son of Petra, a farmer much respected in our village; and you'll get into trouble with him over this."
"Jolly good luck to him, my good man; do you think I don't know Stefan, son of Petra?" the old man said; I saw him just a moment ago stalking about the fair, with his measuring rod under his arm, looking for cloth in the usual way of business. He ought to be around, or in one of the booths wetting the bargain. Glad to know who you belong to, sonny. Just wait a minute and I'll take you to your father and see whether it was his doing that you came to sell hoopoes and make fools of us at the fair."
All was well that far, but when I heard of father my spirits sank, and so I made my way slowly through the crowd and rushed off to Humuleşti, looking over my shoulder to see whether the old man was after me; for truth to tell, I was now anxious to get rid of him. You know the jest: Leave him alone, man! I'd gladly do so but he won't let go of me now! That's just how it was with me, and, what's more, I was glad to have got off so lightly. "It would be a good thing if I could carry it off half as well with mother and aunt Măriuca," thought I, my heart thumping within my breast like a hare's with fear and weariness. When I got home I found that both father and mother had gone to the fair. My brothers and sisters told me in great terror that there was a fearful to-do with uncle Andrei's wife, and how she'd roused the whole village because of the hoopoe in the lime-tree and how she was saying that we'd taken it, and she had made it very unpleasant for mother. Aunt Măriuca, you know, is one that will worry the life out of any one; she's not easy to get on with like aunt Anghiliţa, wife of uncle Kiriac—and that's a fact.
And as they were anxiously talking, what should we suddenly hear but the hoopoe singing in the lime-tree:
"Poo, poo, poop! Poo-poo-poop! Poo-poo-poop!"
My sister Catrina then said in amazement:
"Listen to that, brother! My word, the way some people accuse a man when he's quite innocent!"
"You are right there, sister mine!" But I thought to myself: "If you only knew what she's been through, poor thing, because of me, and what I've been through because of her, you'd weep for that bird!"
Zahei had left us at it and had gone to the fair to give mother the joyful news about the hoopoe. And the following day it being the Tuesday before the fast of Saint Peter, mother baked an ovenful of cheese cakes and cheese pies, also roasting some tender chickens on the spit and then frying them in butter. About breakfast time she asked aunt Măriuca, uncle Andrei's wife, to come to our house and said to her good-naturedly:
"My goodness, sister, how people may fall out for a mere nothing, by lending an ear to evil tongues! Be seated, sister, and let us rather partake of the good things that God has granted us and drink the health of our husbands in a glass of wine, and
For if a woman were to work herself into a state about every little thing, she'd go stark, staring mad in no time!"
"You're quite right, sister," aunt Măriuca said, shrugging her shoulders quite perplexed, as she was preparing to sit down to the meal. "Did you ever hear of such a thing? That's what comes of believing everything you're told."
Then we all began to eat. I don't know about the others but I do know that I ate enough to last me for the rest of the day.
And as soon as I got up from the table, I said goodbye to the food and made straight for the bathing place; and I dived in boldly from a steep bank into the swirling water and I came the most awful belly-flopper flat on my stomach, and I saw a blaze of sparks in front of me from sheer pain; I thought my belly had burst and no mistake. I scrambled painfully out of the water and sat upon the bank hugging my stomach, and the boys gathered round me and buried me in sand and said prayers for the dead over me as best they knew. It was about an hour before I came to my senses. After that I began to bathe at my leisure till sundown; and, managing to get home with the cows, I told mother that our cows had run loose from the cowherd's enclosure about noon and that I had taken them grazing, on my own, and that's why I was so late. Mother, like a good Christian, always seeing the bright side of things and accepting the explanation I had so favourably presented, praised me for my prowess and, moreover, placed a meal before me. Eating like a wolf, I pretended to be humble and laughed up my sleeve, all the while wondering at the skilful lies I had been telling her; so much so, that I half believed them myself.
That's how a person may often be taken in when he least suspects, if he can't reason things out; but on the other hand: Experience is the mother of wisdom.
One day round about the festival of St. Elijah, mother was up to and over her eyes in work. There was cloth to take out of the looms, another lot to warp and begin weaving, a heap of coats cut out and waiting to be tailored rose up to the ceiling, the wool combs lay in the chest without any one to use them, the wheel stood in the middle of the room, and there was no coarse thread for weft!
And as the saying goes: No sense in waiting, for your luck stands still. What with bobbins to spool, a baby in the cradle and some five or six children waiting to be fed, she had her hands full and no mistake. The work had to be done quickly too, for the fair at Fălticeni was almost on us and that was the real thing, the most important fair of the year.
Mother woke me up earlier than usual and said to me very lovingly:
"Nică, my darling! Your father's gone to cut those oats, for they're shedding their grain upon the ground, and I myself have more than enough to do, so don't go wandering along the roads but stay at home with mother to make spools and rock the baby, and at the Fălticeni fair I'll buy you a hat with a ribbon round it and one of those belts with pockets in them, the sort you've always wanted."
"Right you are mother!" but I alone knew what was in my heart. I may not have been much good, but when it came to sewing and embroidering cloth coats and particularly to spinning I was every bit as good as the older girls; and that's the reason why that wicked Măriuca, daughter of Savucu, whom, by the way, I did not dislike, would often tease and mock me, nicknaming me "Ion Torcălău"8, which was the name of a gipsy from Vînători. In spite of that, she was dear to me, however, and I would spin in her company, in the shade of their walnut tree, and each of us would produce such a mound of thick spun wool that mother would give me a kiss when I showed it to her in the evening, at home.
Thus we boys and girls would call upon one another, taking our work along for the sake of company, which is called in the country şezăitoare9 and it's generally held at night, each one doing his or her own work. So deftly were we spinning that it was a delight to Măriuca and me each trying to outdo the other, and as the spindle was spinning so my heart spun within me for love of her! God is my witness! And I remember that one night at a maize-husking party I caught a mouse in her bosom that would have sent her into fits, poor child, if it hadn't been for me.
And in summertime, who but me should be walking the countryside, on holidays, keeping the girls company across those glorious fields, upon hill-sides, in water meadows and coppices gathering oleaster to make yellow dye, marjoram, honey-balm and common melilot to lay among the clothes? Like the burden of the song:
To put it briefly, wherever there were three people I made a fourth.
But when I heard about rocking the baby I didn't take kindly to the idea at all, though the misfortune of being the eldest had fallen to my lot. But what could you do when it was your mother asking you? That day, however, when she'd asked me, the sky was so blue and it was so warm and lovely out, that you felt like bathing in the dust, like the hens. Seeing such weather I bolted to the pool, though I knew it meant leaving my mother in the lurch, my own dear mother, worried as she was. I must tell the truth, for God above sees all!
After a while, thinking I was somewhere in the orchard, mother came out and began to shout herself hoarse: "Ion! Ion! Ion!" but there was no trace of Ion. Not getting any answer, she left her work undone and followed in my tracks to the waterside where she knew I was in the habit of going; and there I was lying naked in the sand, as big a lout as ever was. Then I stood up holding a sun-baked stone with silver spots in it to each ear and I hopped now on one leg, now on the other, bending my head first to the right, then to the left, saying these words:
Spots of silver, spots of gold,
With that I threw the stones, one by one, into the deep pool in the river where I bathed, one for God and one for the Devil, dividing them equally between them; then I threw a few more to block the devil, foaming at the mouth as he was, at the bottom of the pool, then, splash! In would I dive to catch the devil by the leg, for that was our way of bathing and had been ever since Adam's time. After that I would dive in three more times in succession for the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and a final one for Amen. Then would I gently edge myself up the bank like a great sturgeon and lie by the side of the water, slyly peeping at the water playing round the lovely legs of some girls who were bleaching linen upstream. I don't think there ever was a lovelier sight!
Poor mother her arms folded across her chest as a body will stand when worried, was looking on from behind a heap of gravel, quite close to me. But being so occupied I couldn't see her.
Half an hour must have gone by with mother standing there, three or four more half-hours since I'd left the house and I was beginning to feel the sun right inside my stomach, as they say, for it was past midday. Yet in that state, beguiled by happiness, I was well lost to life and the world.
Mother, though a long-suffering woman, finally lost patience and came gently on tiptoe from behind, as I was contemplating those girls that I've been telling you about; she quietly picked up all my clothes from the bank and left me naked in the water, saying bitterly:
"You'll come home, you tramp, when hunger gets the better of you and then you'll dance to another tune." And away she went.
"Well, well! What are you to do now, Ion!" The girls who were busy bleaching their linen and who had observed this scene, nudged each other in the ribs and giggled at my plight so that the place resounded with laughter. I wished the earth would swallow me and my shame up, and I very nearly drowned myself, I was that upset; and the worship of a while ago had now changed to a desire to strangle them, neither more nor less. But as the saying goes: You can't stop wind or water, and people will talk!
I let the girls laugh themselves silly until their mouths stretched from ear to ear, and biding my time till they were bent double, bleaching the linen, I shot out of the water and took to my heels; and so fast did I run upon the gravel that the stones I touched shot up as high as I was tall. Faster, faster I ran without ever looking back, until I came to the road that led to our house. But I wouldn't turn into the road, being ashamed of meeting people, and instead I jumped into Costache's garden and crawled on all fours through the maize, then I jumped into a lane, from that lane into Trăsnea's garden and again through the maize-stalks, and just as I was coming out of Trăsnea's the dogs scented me and came at me as if they would tear me to pieces. What was to be done? I had heard people say that to stop dogs biting you and to get rid of them, you should crouch down the moment you see them springing upon you, and let them bark as long as they like, lying silent; then they'll bark a while and leave you and go their ways. And that's a fact, for that is how I got rid of Trăsnea's dogs on this occasion when they were after me. It was amazing that I was not caught by that great hulking villain Trăsnea, who had borne me a grudge ever since the time when he had caught me stealing his best apples and summer pears in his garden, for he'd have beaten the life out of me, and that would have been the last straw considering the plight I was in! At last when Trăsnea's dogs gave up, as I've told you, I jumped into a crossroads and thence into our own garden, and then I felt as if I were safe in Abraham's bosom. I walked without a care in the world across the maize patch till I reached the yard, I peeped through the palings and caught a glimpse of mother working with a will, both indoors and out, and my heart bled for her; and it bled, too, for my own belly exhausted with swimming as it was. As the old saw says: I'm sorry enough for you, but sorrow for myself quite breaks my heart. Unable to bear the pangs of hunger any longer I began to whine dejectedly behind the palings: "Mother, I've come home." And all of a sudden I dashed into the yard, stood before mother in my birthday suit, caught hold of her unwilling hand, and kissed it, saying to her, whining all this while: "Mother, you may beat me, kill me, hang me or do whatever you will with me, only give me something to eat for I'm nearly done for!" As they say: Nakedness goes round about; hunger hits the nail on the head. At which she, with a mother's kindness, looked tenderly upon me and said with a sigh:
"A fine thing for such a great, big, idle fellow to walk the country in such a state and leave me right now with no help at all! Come and have something to eat; but, mind, I've had more than enough of you. Maybe if you behave yourself from now on, I might feel towards you as before, but I can't honestly make any promises."
To cut a long story short, seeing that I was in mother's bad books, I swore to her that I'd never behave like that again. Then I was as good as gold to her, never doing or saying anything to upset her, for a kind word will do a great deal. I did the household chores as industriously as could be, I tidied up and cleaned the house as well as any capable girl, so that mother had no need to worry when she went out. And one day she gave me a kiss and said with great tenderness:
"May God grant you happy days, Ionică, my darling, and may He shower upon you His most precious gifts, if you keep on as you've been doing recently!"
All of a sudden I found myself crying for sheer joy. I was more sincerely sorry than I had ever been before. Had mother thrashed me with every paling in the fence, had she driven me out of the house like a stranger, I should not have stood before her as contrite as I was at her gentle words.
And don't you believe that I didn't keep my word. I did—for as long as I could manage—since that was my nature, patient and steadfast in my speech, but, after my own fashion. Nor is this self-praise, my deeds will speak for me: I didn't ask for food when I was asleep; when I was up I didn't wait for others to give it me; and when there was any work to be done, I made myself scarce. And that was not the sum of my accomplishments. If I was treated harshly, that didn't work; if I was treated gently, that worked even less; and when I was left to myself, I made such a fine tangle of things that not even St. Nastasia, who can save you from poison, was able to unravel it for all her skill. As the saying goes: One fool can throw a boulder into a pond and ten wise men cannot get it out.
After all, what's all this talk about? I've had my share in this world like everybody else: a clay figure endowed with eyes, a handful of animated humus from Humuleşti, who's never been handsome in his teens, wise in his twenties, nor rich in his thirties—but poor I have been, as poor as a church mouse, ever since the day I was born!
by Ion Creangă
"I wouldn't mind it so much if you were of some importance or if you came from anywhere noteworthy," my better self said to me; "but as things are, though you're a mere figure of clay endowed with eyes, a handful of animated humus come from a village in our countryside, you will not keep quiet, but will batter people's ears with your boorish sayings!"
"I will not keep quiet, conscience mine, for I am an ordinary, normal man, born of two people; and the village of Humuleşti, where I first saw the light of day, is no out-of-the way, joyless village, with no outlook on the world like some other villages, and the places round about our village deserve to be remembered too. Above Humuleşti, there is Vînătorii Neamţului, where the seed of such men as formerly harried Sobieski, the king of the Poles, still lives on. Still further north are the monasteries of Secu and Neamţ, once the chief glory of the church of Romania and a second treasury of Moldavia. To the south, you've got the villages of Boişte and Ghindăoani, where people will only harness Hungarian oxen, no less, to their carts; where the ploughs will stand unguarded in the fields for weeks on end, the beehives will need no beekeepers, the corn fields no watchman and not a thing be taken; and the people in those villages know nothing of law-suits. Close by Boişte is the village of Blebea, more than half of whose inhabitants, if they drop their fur-cap into the water, can afford to say: "That's for father, God rest his soul!"
To the south-west you have the convents: Agapia, hidden away from the world, Văratec, where Brâncoveanu's rich and bountiful wife spent her life; and the villages of Filioara with its forest-path trodden by those does with their long eyelashes, running loose from the nunnery; Bălţăteşti, famous for its salt-mines, and Ceahlăeşti, Topoliţa and Ocea, where the people chase the crow away over their boundaries after it has got the plum in its beak. Up north, beyond the waters of the Ozana, there's Tîrgu Neamţ and its outlying districts: Pometea under the Cociorva hill, where every house has a large orchard; Ţuţuieni, whose people have come from across the mountains, who eat rancid bacon, get their livelihood from rearing sheep and dressing their wool, and are famous for their oil presses; Condreni with the water-mills on the Nemţişor and the fulling-mills for the fulling of cloth. Above Condreni, on the top of a hill full of ravines, stands the famous Castle of Neamţ in its wild countryside, where the lightning plays and where in summer the cattle driven thither by the gadflies live, watched over by the rooks and the hawks who've found it a good place to build their nests. But that's no concern of mine, a son of Humuleşti. My task lies elsewhere; I wish to give an account of our village, and of the boyhood I spent there, and then make an end.
All the princes and metropolitans that have succeeded each other upon the thrones of Moldavia since this country began, have had to pass through Humuleşti at least once, on their way to the monasteries, to say nothing of other people who've journeyed through our village, wealthy, select people, visiting the Neamţ monastery and its icon that works wonders, its bedlam, its festival on Ascension Day, when there's a fair going on in the town at the same time. Also Humuleşti was on the road to various fairs such as Piatra on Whit Sunday and Fălticeni on St. Elijah's Day; to patronal festivals at Secu, Beheading of St.John the Baptist, at Apagia-on-theHill, the Transfiguration of Our Lord, at Agapia-in-the-Vale, Saints Constantine and Helen, and at Văratic, St. Mary's Day—an endless stream of people! All the sanctifyings and dedications of churches; all the synods and the successions of clerical and political personalities; all the strangers from the world over, all the hearts urged on by unfulfilled aspirations, all the broken and misguided souls that found their way to the monasteries, all these brought people through our village. People, people, people without end. Foreign armies and a troop of soldiers on horseback, all high-ranking Germans in gold-embroidered cloth, they all went through Humuleşti in the days of my boyhood, with drawn swords, making for the convents to look for beautiful Natalia; and they made a great to-do in the convents and ransacked all the cells of the nuns, but could not find her; for the cellars of Pîrvu, the watchman, at Tîrgu Neamţ could hide a young princess, in time of need. And it was a good thing the nuns were there and that they knew how to appease them with gentle words, persuading them to put up their swords by telling them that those who draw the sword shall perish by the sword.
But why should I bother my head with kings and emperors, instead of thinking of my boyhood at Humuleşti and of getting down to what concerns me? That's what I ought to have done from the outset, but I was anxious to prove that the people of Humuleşti do not live like bears in their lairs but have the happiness of seeing all sorts and conditions of men.
In 1852 on the day when the chapel of the hospital at Tîrgu Neamţ was being consecrated and the Prince's school was being opened, I was one of several boys who had a part to play in the church service, and we stood near Prince Ghica who was present at the ceremony with a whole throng of people round him. We could not take our eyes off him; and he, good-looking and gentle, seeing us all arrayed in embroidered shirts, as white as ermine, and fine sleeveless sheepskin tunics, in tight trousers of the finest wool and wearing our sandals, clean as new pins, with our hair well brushed, with modesty written upon our countenances and the fear of God in our hearts, gave us a fatherly look saying:
"Now children, you have a school and a holy church, the fountainheads of consolation and spiritual happiness; make good use of them, cultivate your minds and praise the Lord!"
These words spoken by those princely lips imprinted themselves deeply upon the hearts of the people there present, and without delay the school was soon filled with boys who were anxious to learn, myself among them, excelling everyone in pranks and laziness; I'd grown so lazy that my equal was nowhere to be found, because mother wouldn't let me so much as fetch a tubful of water in her anxiety that I should study and become a priest, like Father Isaiah Duhu, our teacher. Father Duhu was a kind man when he was in the right mood, God rest him! He kept the boys in such order as had never been seen before. In summer, out of his own money, he would buy punnets of raspberries and all kinds of fruit, for us to eat, and practically every Saturday he would pack the lot of us into a lumbering old coach belonging to the Neamţ monastery and' would take us to the abbot's lodgings to be examined in the presence of abbot Neonil, a lame old man who gently advised us to stick to the book of prayers and the psalter. For all other reading, he used to say, was mere heretical learning which rather tended to trouble and embitter a man's soul. Yet it was written that Father Duhu should not follow the advice of the holy abbot to the letter, but that he should teach us a bit of arithmetic, grammar, geography and a little of everything according to our understanding.
One day, Father Duhu returned in a fury from the abbey and set us the following problem to illustrate the rule of three:
"If one para wrongfully deducted equals a hundred rightfully earned ones, then how many honest paras are there in six thousand lei (my yearly salary), that have unlawfully been kept back by abbot Neonil and which the Neamţ abbey shall eventually be made to disgorge?"
"Twenty-four million paras, Father, or six hundred thousand lei," one of us answered, chalk in hand, at the blackboard.
"I want Nică Oşlobanu to check that sum," said Father Duhu.
Nică Oşlobanu, a great, big, lumbering fellow, got up, as usual, and begged to be excused since his head was bad. And I don't quite know how it came about, but a big "bear" tumbled out of the front of his shirt and rolled upon the floor; not a bear such as gipsies train to dance at fairs, but a round ball of mămăligă with cheese inside it, cooked over live coals, and just the thing to put into your stomach when you're hungry. The boys made for it, Oşlobanu dived at them to get it back, and there followed such a scrum and such laughter in the classroom because of that "bear", as you've never seen.
At this I can see Father Duhu in my mind's eye, slapping his forehead and saying with the most enormous sighs:
"It's my great and grievous sins that have driven me into this place to teach these savage bumpkins! You'd have been a thousand times happier, Isaiah, grazing pigs at Cogeasca Veche than living to see such days! And you, Oşlobanu, you stupid lout, a slave to your belly and taking no trouble whatsoever over your mind, you'll be a priest like your father before you, when all the buffalos at the Neamţ monastery have turned hermits."
Oşlobanu, stupid though he was, wouldn't let anyone touch him or if they did he'd begin pawing the dust in front of him, like a buffalo. As soon as he got home that evening he told his father what Father Isaiah had been saying. The rest could be left to Parson Niculai Oşlobanu, who might not know very much and who rushed through three services every day and prayed for the souls of the dead wholesale, so that monks and ecclesiastics, abbots, and metropolitans with their wives and children, would be turning in their graves.
One morning what did Father Duhu get up to if not to taking Teofan, another monk from the chapel of the hospital, with him and go to the church of Saint Lazarus below Castle Hill. No sooner did they enter the church than they started picking a quarrel with Parson Oşlobanu, who was officiating, because he wouldn't stick to the ritual.
"Ritual, you hypocritical pot-bellies? I'll give you ritual, that I will," Parson Oşlobanu said, putting saintliness by. "By cunning machinations you filched the Holy Martyr Demetrius Fountainhead of the Holy Ointment, from us, and instead of this renowned saint you have given us Lazarus, a ragged Jew, who keeps on dying and resurrecting, and resurrecting and dying again, so that no one will pay heed to him any longer. And that's a patron saint, is it? Moreover, having left us penniless by taking away our lands and putting a wall round the church, you now close the gates of the hospital too, just to spite us; nay, they have even stopped our bells ringing because of these hounds, the doctors; and it's your doing, too, that the parishioners have dropped away one by one, so that not even a blear-eyed hag ever drops in any more! And what's more: for sixty years and over I've been serving the church and you're to teach me the ritual now, you vipers, are you? Just wait and I'll drive those high and mighty notions out of your heads!" And whistling through the air at the monks' heads came the great Ecclesiastical Code. Then, catching up a sturdy brass candlestick, he was at their heels to put a curse upon them! And just watch Father Duhu and Teofan dropping their slippers, crawling out on all fours rather than running, as the ritual forsooth lays down!
Next day Nică Oşlobanu never came near the school; nor din Father Duhu ever go to St. Lazarus's, for Parson Oşlobanu would have had him nailed on the cross and laid in store in the church loft, side by side with some of the icons left over from Neamţ Castle.
I've a shrewd idea that the old man was quite right: for on the spot where St. Lazarus's now stood there had once been a church built of wood, dedicated to St. Demetrius, founded and endowed with lands by Prince Vasile Lupu, just like ours at Humuleşti. But the Neamţ monastery in its shrewdness, when building the hospitals at Tîrgu-Neamţ, rebuilt St. Demetrius's church of stone, changing its patron saint and calling it St. Lazarus's, included it in the precincts of the hospital by surrounding it with a wall, and St. Demetrius became patron saint to the hospital chapel; while they swallowed up the ecclesiastical lands as well as the Humuleşti lands. And thus it was that the wrath of Parson Oşlobanu had reached its zenith; no trace of monk would he allow in his own church; he'd sooner have skinned them! Father Duhu had narrowly escaped being turned into a martyr, to replace St. Demetrius, the fountainhead of the Holy Ointment!
Shortly after this we heard that Nică Oşlobanu had gone to the seminary at Fălticeni, would you believe it! My cousin Ion Mogorogea, Gâtlan, Trăsnea and other acquaintances of mine had gone there already, at their parents' expense, of course. As to myself, now left without any friends to get up to mischief with and, moreover, having received a good thrashing from Father Isaiah out of the blue, I would nag at mother to put in a word with father, so that I might go to the seminary as well, though I was no bigger than twopenny-worth of coppers. The young clerics were supposed to bring as an offering to the Reverend Principal at the "priest factory" at Fălticeni gold coins, beehives, sheep, horses, oxen and similar oddments, turned into coin of the realm. Then you could rely upon His Holiness and be sure to pop up, like a Jack-in-the-box, with all the necessary clerical learning. But in my case father gave just two measures of rye and two of oats to those in charge to enter me at Fălticeni, for schooling was just a manner of speaking; the oxen and other presents were what really mattered.
Upon reaching the place late in the autumn, I took lodgings with Pavel the cobbler, in Rădăşeni Street, where my friends were quartered.
The principal, who used to play cards till all hours, rarely came to the school. We scholars, seeing this, went still more rarely, yet scrapes and pranks there were in plenty.
Pavel was a bachelor and his house was roomy enough. There were benches and beds all round the walls, and one more by the stove, and they were all taken. Our host, after working the whole day through, would take it easy upon the stove, among boot-trees, shoemaker's lasts, sole-extenders, a shoemaker's table, knives, sharp double-bladed knives, sleeking-steels, straps, pegs and wedgeshaped pieces of leather, needles, prongs, tongs, files, shoemaker's hammers, leather, thread, a broken plate with green vitriol, cobbler's wax and all things necessary to shoemaking.
Bodrîngă, a shiftless old man, but full of fun, was also living with us. For a bit of food and some cheap tobacco, the kind that's sold at six pounds a para, he would do the chores for the whole household; he would saw wood, light the fires, fetch water, sweep the room arid tell us stories all night long crouching with his nose almost into the embers. He would play the flute too: the doina1 that sends shivers down your back, the Corabiasca, Măriuţa, Horodinca, Alivencile, Tiitura, Ca la uşa cortului2, dance-songs and many more such jigging ones as these; and we would dance till the floor sweated and the soles of our boots wore out, and the heels too, for I was now wearing boots, if you please. And what with that sly, waggish old man Bodrîngă, Pavel could hardly get through the mending of them; what's more, he too, once in a while, taking leave of his senses, would make a mess of his own boots dancing with us.
It was once Oşlobanu's turn to buy fire-wood. And in spite of his utter meanness he willy-nilly stepped out upon the open space near our lodgings and came upon a peasant from Sasca, I believe, or from Baia, with a cart loaded with beech-logs.
"How much do you want for the cartload, my good man?" said Oşlobanu, who had as little intention of buying wood as I now have of taking orders.
"Three husaşi, master."
"You don't say so, my good man! All that for an armful of wood! I could heave that lot on my back and carry it home at one go."
"If you carry that, master, I'll let you have it for nothing."
"You mean what you say, do you, my good man?"
"I'm not joking, master; we'll see if you can carry it and then you're welcome to it."
Oşlobanu then took the logs out of the man's cart one by one and balanced them against his shoulder, then he undid the waistband that was wound round his middle and put it round them binding them neatly so that they should not fall asunder, then lifting and heaving with some difficulty he got them on his back and went off home with them!
A cheeky boy who was looking on said in a loud voice:
The peasant meanwhile stood crossing himself openmouthed without so much as uttering one word.
Now I can't tell you exactly how heavily loaded that cart was with wood, which in that place was worth seven and a half lei at that time of the year, nor how big and strong Nică Oşlobanu was and some sixty more lads like him, many of whom having left their wives and a couple of children in some forsaken mountain village, had come to Fălticeni to better themselves with book learning.
A fine place for learning that was and no mistake! Some would drone church chants, putting on airs, you know:
Ison, oligon, petasti
till they were as hoarse as crows; others would blurt out the seven mysteries in the great catechism in one breath and with their eyes shut. Gatlan would fight with Goliath the giant in his sleep. In less time than it took him to make his mămăligă, that bewhiskered David of Fîrcaşa would finish reciting at full speed, without stumbling, the whole history of the Old Testament, divided into periods, by Filaret Scriban, and the conjunctive pronouns in the dative and accusative according to Măcărescu's grammar book: mi-ţi-i, ni-vi-li, me-te-îl-o, ne-ve-i-le; me-te-îl-o, ne-ve-i-le, mi-ţi-i, ni-vi-li, whatever that may be, dash it all! Some boys would mumble like mad till they were dizzy in the head, others would never stop bellowing it out, till their eyesight grew dim, some would move their lips as if laid low by the falling sickness, most would walk about distracted or sit in a brown study seeing how they were wasting their time, and they would just utter a deep sigh, well knowing all the hardships in store for them at home. For such maddening of brains and twisting of tongues as these unhappy seminarists were put to, I never saw the like. A terrible way to stultify the mind, God alone knows!
It was a real pleasure to look upon young David, that lad from the mountain with his forked beard and his fine whiskers, his curly hair as black as a raven's feather, his high, pure forehead, his bushy eyebrows, his large eyes, as black as mulberries, flashing like lightning, his ruddy cheeks like two peonies, tall of stature, broad in the shoulders, slim in the waist, pliant like a birch-tree, light-footed as a doe and timid as a girl. God rest him! It was not his lot to take orders; he died, poor fellow, before his time, smothered under the conjunctive pronouns—may they nevermore be heard of—for they have eaten alive that very jewel of a young man! Far more sensible was Mirăuţă of Grozăveşti, who would loaf about in the bitterest cold of winter, calling at every Jewish booth, for fun: here he would ask for a straight sheath for his curved pruning knife, there for a halter for fleas, at another place it was for nails out of Noah's Ark, now wild strawberries or cultivated strawberries for someone who's gone out of his mind; or he would sing to spite the Jews:
The beetle I can just abide
And many more such devilries that would come into his mind. He wasn't such a fool as to waste his strength upon mi-ţi-i, mi-vi-li, me-te-îl-o, ne-ve-i-le, as young David had done.
Like Mirăuţă I wouldn't take that much trouble to kill myself with book learning; for no children were crying for me at home, nor had I given the principal that much of a premium.
Two bushels of rye and two more of oats were no reason for my refraining from consoling the priest's daughter at Fălticenii Vechi.
What's more, when I looked into the mirror, there was not a hair or whisker on my face, though I would singe the down on it and rub in a mixture of tallow, burnt wick and burnt hazelnut every night—it was all of no avail. For the truth of the matter was that having joined that sort of a school it was only a long beard and a long purse—the more's the pity—that could turn you into a priest!
As to Trăsnea, the trouble he had with grammar, poor soul! He once said to me in deep despair:
"I say, Ştefănescu" (that's what they called me at Fălticeni) "let's stay away from school today, for I don't know the multiplication table and I want to learn the grammar for tomorrow. Please, please do come along with me, out by Fălticenii Vechi. We'll study together or each on his own; I'll do grammar and you do whatever you want, and then you'll question me and we'll see if some of it has stuck in my poor head. That won't do anything about the other subjects that I can't cope with very well, what with this new alphabet4 that's come in, but this damned grammar is turning my hair grey, curse it! I wish it were burnt to ashes! What's the use of it in church anyway? However, it's in the syllabus. I'll begin at the beginning and maybe with your help who've been through Father Duhu's school, I'll get the hang of it."
As Fălticenii Vechi held some special attraction for me, I agreed with Trăsnea and off we started. A dry frost had set in, in the month of November, and there was a cutting wind that day that set your cheeks afire! As soon as we reached the fields, Trăsnea lay down on a footpath and started on the grammar right at the beginning, first question, first answer:
Question: What is Romanian grammar?
Answer: It is the art that teaches us to speak and to write a language correctly.
Or, according to another edition:
Grammar is a discipline that shows us how to speak and write well in a language.
That's that; from prayer book and psalter, and those poorly enough gone through, you passed on to grammar, and what grammar! Not like the ones we have today, a whole lot of grammars, some "rational", some "fully developed" and chockfull of compliments5 which, we must say, and no compliment, do explain... so that you no longer understand a thing; these are expressly conceived for children, and child's play they are too, they're so easy! But what's the use of talking about them? No such luck for Trăsnea to deal in choice methods. He, poor devil, had to learn his sort of grammar: "art, correct, in a language; a syllable is a complete sound, simple or compounded with one of the consonants, or with several consonants, which is nevertheless uttered in a single emission of breath." While in a different edition: "By a syllable we understand the utterance of a part of speech, etc."6
Well, well! now clear your voice and do your best, brother Trăsnea, if you can. And upon the third page there stands, already, another piece of nonsense:
Question: How many divisions has Romanian grammar?
Answer: Romanian grammar has four divisions which are: 1. etymology, 2. syntax, 3. orthography, 4. prosody.
Question: What does each division teach?
Answer: 1. Etymology teaches us the parts of speech, that is grammatical analysis.
Then came mi-ţi-i, ni-vi-li, me-te-îl-o, ne-ve-i-le. And many more such ridiculous inventions.
Now if you consider that Trăsnea was advanced in years, a perfect swot and somewhat hard of understanding, that the teacher, who would himself wonder at his being a teacher, used to say: "From here, down to...," as I believe they still do in some places to this very day, then maybe you won't be hard either on the grammarian, or on the teacher, or on Trăsnea; but on the accident that turned out people such as they are: either steel blades or tin ones. And do you think Trăsnea would read question and answer, in turn, slowly and distinctly so that something intelligible could come of it?
Not so, you pagans, but this way: "What is grammar, Romanian, it is... what is, it is... art, not art; art... art... which... which... which teaches us; teaches... teaches... what does it teach; to speak... eak... eak... that teaches...; what is, is... is art, the devil! not art, the art that teaches... what is, is..." And ever thus, mumbling at great speed, stuttering and never stopping to think for a minute; he would seldom reach "to write a language correctly", poor fellow! And when he'd completely addled his brains, he asked me to question him for he knew it all. Then I'd take the book out of his hand and ask: "What is grammar, Trăsnea?" And he, shutting his eyes, would blurt out quickly and mournfully, like a beggar at a bridge:
"What is Romanian grammar, it is... what it is, it is..." and the rest followed in the usual muddle, words distorted and strung together with no sense whatsoever, so that you felt like weeping with compassion.
"That's not right, brother Trăsnea."
"What's wrong with it?"
"Don't say 'Romanian' but just give the answer; the words of the question are irrelevant!" And he would, in his way, make an effort to give a good answer, but it was no use, he got more and more tied up, began to heave sighs and felt like knocking his head off.
"Leave me alone for a bit," he would say sorrowfully; "and when I call, come back and question me again; and if I still don't know it, then I'll be damned! Now let's admit I'm no good at grammar, and let's put it aside; art, the same; to say nothing of 'Romanian, is... which... teaches us to speak and write well in a language' which are, I suppose, Romanian words, the devil they are! Only there must be some snag here, too... 'to speak and write well in a language.' Language, tongue? Devilish this! How can you 'write in a tongue'? Perhaps it means with the tongue, how should I know? It seems probable that the likes of us are hopeless when it comes to writing; but even when it's just a matter of speaking, more's the pity, it looks as if we spoke like heathens and as bad as could be; not Romanian, but some godforsaken dialect. Great God, a man who writes grammars must be full of learning! Yet in grammar as far as I can see, the table they call a table, the house a house and the ox an ox, as I've learnt to call them at my mother's knee. Maybe the other horrors—pronunciation, art, correct, to pronounce, the analysis, the synthesis, prosody, orthography, syntax, etymology, concrete, abstract, conjunctive, mi, ţi, i, ni, vi, li; me, te, îl, o, ne, ve, i, le—and the likes of these may be pure Romanian; and we hobbledehoys or country bumpkins have no idea of them! It's a lucky thing we haven't to sing them, for it would be even worse for our weak, useless brains! Better dead than be a peasant! Get along with you, Ştefănescu, I'll set to again."
And leaving him to his own devices I went to the priest's daughter, found her all alone and in a mood for company, and we had some quiet fun together till nightfall, for mother she had none and her father, as was natural for a priest, was going the rounds begging for what he could get.
I then went back to the fields, the ribbon from round the girl's neck in my pocket, a beautifully embroidered handkerchief with silk flowers, and a fine supply of apples in my shirt; and what do you think? That fool Trăsnea was asleep in the path, the grammar book under his nose and never minding the cold. "Poor, foolish man! A worthless knave you are; this won't do; your mother had better have borne you a colt for the wolves to have eaten," I said to myself.
"Hei! Trăsnea! Get up! Do you know the multiplication table?" Up he jumped, I questioned him. Worse than awful! "Come, let's go back, Trăsnea, old chap, for I'm ravenous, frozen through and sick at heart in this ghastly field!"
"Same here, damn that grammar! I'm fed up with it. And besides I am not feeling well."
"Sort of laziness and weakness in the knees, Trăsnea, isn't that it?"
"You've hit it exactly; a kind of faintheartedness with weakness in the knees or thereabouts."
"Maybe it's the grammatical ague," I suggested.
"Worse luck! Maybe that's it," said Trăsnea; "for dash it, as soon as you take it up, you're sleepy. Such stuff and nonsense won't affect the ritual of the church and that's a fact. The Osmoglasnic7 is the thing. As father was wont to say: 'The song of praise fills the bag, the hymn of thanksgiving fills the barn, my boy!' Why bother and worry over the grammar, Ştefănescu? Come on!"
And back we went to our lodgings, about sunset; we ate our fill and then asked old Bodrîngă to play for us; and, from everywhere around, a crowd of young clerics swarmed in, for that was one of their favourite meeting-places. We pitched in to the dancing, you know, as one should at that age so that we didn't even notice the night passing. And so I got rid of the hump and Trăsnea of mumbling in his sleep: "What is Romanian grammar... it is, what it is..." as he did other nights. But the jollification did not end there; another and a better was added to it. Old Bodrîngă, had hardly put the pipe to his lips when in came Father Buliga, nicknamed maize-stalk, from Buciumenii Street. He had already taken a sniff of burnt incense and a sip of holy water or something stronger, early as it was. God forgive him! And as soon as he had made the sign of the cross over us, with both hands, as his custom was, the way archbishops do, he forthwith came out with certain allusions touching the priest's daughter at Fălticenii Vechi: that she was a good girl, that she'd be a fitting wife for a priest, that she'd suit me to the ground, that her father would tie her round my neck. Father Buliga, the old trouble-maker, carried on with these insinuations until Gîtlan started flattering him and saying:
"Come now, leave off, good father; don't you go about spreading such fantasies at the very beginning of Shrovetide. Go on playing, nuncle Bodrîngă, for a while and let's have our fill of rejoicing, and Father Buliga will absolve us all!"
Old Bodrîngă took the hint; he again began to play, and the dancing went on again.
Father Buliga, though an old man, seeing how things stood, lifted up the skirts of his robe tucking them into his belt and saying:
"As far as I am concerned, may God grant you fun and good cheer, as long as you live!"
Then he threw his kamelavkion8 aside, and joined us in the dance with locks of hair streaming out around his head. We went at it over and over again until he very nearly gave up the ghost, and we exhausted him so much that he was quite fed up with us. But, as the saying goes: If you join the dance, dance it out! The poor man seeing that he'd joined a pack of fools, began to think up excuses to get away.
"I'm spiritual father to some parishioners who're expecting me, dear boys, and whether living or dead, I'll have to go, for that's our calling."
Then Pavel, our host, suddenly placing a dish with some cold meat and sausages and a carafe of wine in front of Father Buliga, said:
"Please, holy Father, come and share our meal. Take a bite and one or two glasses of wine, and then you'll be ready to go, if, as you say, there's such a hurry."
His holiness, making no attempt to resist, crossed his hands according to custom, cleared his voice and humbly said:
"Bless, O Lord, the food and drink of thy servants, amen!" Then he raised his glass saying: "May you be bursting with health like a wood in springtime, my boys, here's to you! When we are at our worst, may it be ever as it is now!" He emptied the glass down his throat, then two or three more, gave us his blessing with both hands and said: "Now, boys, you've had enough, so be quiet!" Then he left us to our own devices and went his way. Yet we, as who should say:
What says the doctor? Let him say!
About nightfall we all, not forgetting old Bodrîngă, betook ourselves to a respectable tavern belonging to the daughter of the mayor at Rădăşeni, where more people would come for love of the hostess than for any urge to drink wine; and lovely she was, too, a blessing upon her! She had recently married a widower, an old man; such a stick in the mud and just the sort of person you want for a host. The moment she saw us, the hostess welcomed us and ushered us into a large room, with shutters at the windows and wooden floor-boards, where there were only ourselves and the hostess, whenever she cared to look in.
In one corner there were a few bushels of beans, in another hemp seed, in a third corner a heap of fine apples and Rădăşeni pears that will keep over winter till after Easter, in the fourth, peas and broad beans divided by a wide plank and nearby some Turkish pumpkins; dried pears in a wooden tub, as sweet to the taste as figs; further on a heap of reels of hemp and flaxthread, hanging from a rafter a hank of worsted and yarn variously coloured, for carpets and runners. Then oakum, combings and sundry things dumped on shelves and corner cupboards as was usual in the house of a well-to-do farmer in those days. As soon as we were all assembled in that delightful room, the hostess closed the shutters, lit the candle, and in no time at all was back with a large earthen jug full of Odobeşti wine; and as she poured it into the glasses its bubbles shot up six inches into the air, it was so strong. Gîtlan, the sly one, took up a glass and handed it to the hostess saying:
"Come, henny, you drink the first health and we shall see whether you've doctored it or not."
The lovely hostess raised her glass, and with laughing eyes wished us health and happiness and, having tasted a little, begged us not to detain her for she had other customers besides us and her husband couldn't manage without help.
But no fear; we barred her way and insisted that she should take a sip from each glass. And she would have stayed longer, I'm sure, had we not stupidly driven her away by thanking her with a loving kiss from each of us.
"That's the way of youth, bless it," old Bodrîngă said, as he sat perched on the heap of combings and munching dried pears; "It's as it should be, boys, now's your time or never."
"Right you are, nuncle," said the hostess, coming in at the door with a dish of hot pies and a roast fowl that she set before us; and, my word, what a boon that was, for we were as ravenous as wolves.
When we had finished drinking one jug, another would arrive for the which we again gave thanks by kissing the hostess till she would feign to be cross and run away from our company. Then she would come back and run away again, for that's the way they sell the wine wherever they sell it. How in the name of sin should I know what was in her mind? Maybe the hostess took no offence whatever at our company, that's why she'd try it so often. At long last Trăsnea, that unpleasant lout, took her unawares and gave her a smacking kiss. Any ass will soon put his foot in it. And then the lovely hostess was really cross. But what could we do? As the saying has it: She'll doff it with her bodice, for there is no other way out of it. After a while, old man Bodrîngă took heart and began to play one of those Corabiasca dances that set your feet jigging. And didn't we warm up to it? We danced so uproariously that the room wasn't large enough for us. We plunged into the beans, peas and broad beans as though we were blind, and the hemp seed was all squashed into oil under our feet. It was after midnight when we saw that old Bodrîngă had left us and we slipped out, one by one, making for our lodgings; myself with a load of dried pears and a large pumpkin that the hostess had given me; for she was as open-handed as she was lovely, the little darling! But when I reached our place what did I see? Nearly every one of my companions had "borrowed" some little thing; one of them, magnificent apples, another, Rădăşeni pears, old Bodrîngă had picked up an armful of combings to set the fire burning, Trăsnea's choice was hemp seed. Now Oşlobanu, whose boots had their uppers cut out of one cow's hide and their soles out of another, was bringing up the rear; and, when he got inside, he lay down without taking his boots or clothes off and raised his feet up to the rafter in the ceiling, and you'll never guess what happened next. A good tubful of beans, and no mistake, ran out of the tops of his boots, which he usually wore turned down and which he had turned up for this special occasion! My cousin Ion Mogorogea alone, son of an honest farmer, had taken no keepsake, while Zaharia, son of Gîtlan, had been content with kissing the lovely hostess. A great consolation for a young stranger at Shrovetide! And I now see that Gîtlan, whose name in school was Zaharia Simionescu, proved the wisest of the lot; for he shared in the goods we'd brought; but we'd had no share in his happiness!
There's a time and a season for all things and now we had to get down to our books for a while, for the Christmas holidays were hard upon us and we were taking the bread out of our parents' mouths to no purpose; you can't get anything for nothing and money does not lie on the highway for the taking. Putting our goods in common we now possessed at the beginning of Advent some four or five jugfuls of oil, three or four sackfuls of maize flour, a few pounds of salt, fish, prunes, beans, peas, broad beans, salt and wood, enough to last for some weeks; for we took our meals together, taking turns at cooking, each using his own stores, for the day. But Oşlobanu, who ate as much as seventeen, had set us all thinking. His father, priest Neculai, could have sent him plenty, no doubt; yet a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
There are many things to do and little talk needful if you're working with someone who understands you. One day I talked it over with Gîtlan, arguing that something ought to be done to get rid of a few hearty eaters, for the partnership didn't seem fair. And we found a way of solving our problem that could not be improved on. At night when they were all asleep, we would apply "posts" to the feet of whichever person we'd choose; it was easy to do, as some of them would drop off and sleep like logs as soon as old Bodrîngă began to spin his yarns. Having agreed on our plan we waited for a time when the others were absent and started making enough "posts", to last us for some time. They are made from a few sheets of paper stuck together with tallow, which we melted at the fire; you gently apply one to the sole of a man's foot, when he's asleep; then put a match to it, and of all the infallible contrivances! Since feeling ran high against Oşlobanu, his turn came first. And when the flame burned him to the bone, he jumped from his sleep, roaring like a bull and couldn't keep still for the pain. Yet, unable to discover the culprit and not relying upon his strength to fight us all, he fell on his knees and touched the ground with his forehead, calling God's wrath upon us, curses pouring from his mouth. In spite of the cursing we applied a few more "posts" on succeeding nights and since his soles had become one big sore, he had to go post haste back to Humuleşti, sick of the priesthood and leaving all his provisions behind in our hands. Upon which Gîtlan wrote to Oşlobanu:
Ever your well-wisher,
A few days later we cured Nică, the son of Constantin, son of Cosma, from Humuleşti, who had but recently joined us in our lodgings, of the taste for the clerical calling. He too went back the Oşlobanu way with blistered soles to his feet. And so much the better, for they were wasting their time anyway.
Trăsnea, however, tougher than the others and slow of understanding, stuck it out as long as he could; then seeing that we'd got the better of him with those "posts" he moved into new lodgings taking his share of provisions. After his departure only three of us remained at Pavel the shoemaker's: myself, Gîtlan, my cousin Ion, nicknamed Mogorogea, and old Bodrîngă of course. My cousin who Mogorogea seen the plight of the others made it a habit to sew up the sleeves of his fur-coat every night before going to bed, and to stick his feet in them. He slept without a care in the world, thus illustrating the dictum: Caution is the mother of safety.
Close upon Christmas, Pavel made a pair of Muscovy leather boots for my cousin Ion, with whom he was hand in glove. Mogorogea had paid Pavel two icusari9 for the boots. But they were worth it, without a doubt; for he'd used good leather, they were double soled and they were made to measure. The only thing Pavel had forgotten to put in was the squeak10, and Mogorogea had been much upset at that. Luckily the winter was bitter cold and the snow remedied the omission.
During holidays we used to go home and then it was a case of the gipsy saying about "Christmas, the time for stuffing yourself."
Smoked pork chops, boiled sausages and haggis, dried sausages seasoned with garlic, thin slices of fat pork, all home made, chopped and properly fried in the pan, eaten with warm mămăligă, they would just glide down the throat like anything. A peasant will make a lot of tasty dishes, if only he has got what goes to the making of them. And thanks be to God, our parents had that; for poverty had not settled on their doorstep at the time I'm speaking of. But to my tale: we kept Christmas properly with our parents at Humuleşti and after Epiphany we went back to Fălticeni, to Pavel, our landlord. We called at the school just occasionally, as a matter of form, but, truth to tell, there was no point in going there; for what's in the book you may learn on your own, if you are so inclined; and if not, why, good luck to you! And I was one of the fortunate ones: for when it comes to faith, what's the use of book learning? Old Bodrîngă, I'll agree, had a lot to teach you. His pipe would set you dancing against your better judgment and his tales would not let you go to sleep. Besides, there were other things to pass the time should we feel so inclined: nine men's morris or some card-game or other; or sometimes, at night, we would sit up talking till daybreak. On holidays we would make our way to the villages where we knew there was dancing. At Rădăşeni, a large pleasant and wealthy village, we danced at three different horas on the same day: one hora of staid bachelors where the youngest girls had turned up; a second one of young fellows to which the older and more interesting girls had come; and a third one, of youngsters, joined by whoever wished to join in. The young men would hardly move and the hora swung very slowly. The girls would not wait to be asked, as they do elsewhere, but would each undo the hands of two young men, where she thought fit, give them "good day" and go on dancing. My cousin, flaunting his new boots, would only dance next to the mayor's daughter, a sister of the lovely innkeeper's wife at Fălticeni. Whereupon Gîtlan who was dancing by me, whispered into my ear:
"You wait and see what I'll do to Mogorogea; if he doesn't rue this day, I'll be damned!"
"Be quiet, man, and don't be a fool," I said "for he may turn nasty and go back home like the others."
"What if he does? Good riddance! As the saying goes: If the old woman steps out of the cart, it will only be all the lighter for the mare." And we danced on.
That night we went back to our lodgings, and Mogorogea, a neat careful fellow, cleaned his boots and placed them on the stove to dry, as he always did. Three days after that my cousin's boots split all over. Thoroughly furious, he had it out with Pavel, asking for a new pair or for his money back right away.
"You've been using overdried leather, you clumsy cobbler," said Mogorogea angrily; "is that the kind of friend you are? Come now, make your choice, or I'll ruin your good name; I'll throw these boots at your head, do you hear me?"
Pavel being quite blameless answered disdainfully:
"Look here, young cleric, don't you go too far, because you can't carry it off. Who are you calling a clumsy cobbler? Now that you've been wearing the boots a long time, running around with your rowdy friends, wearing them to pieces at dances, kicking them out up hill and down dale, now you'd like me to give you your money back or make you a new pair, would you? Not bad, that, I will say! Aren't you satisfied with all the trouble I took putting those damned shoes of yours on lasts, stretching them on boot-trees, and rubbing oil into them here on the stove, under my very nose, each morning? And the times you've stuck "posts" to my feet, too; and I, like the good-natured fellow that I am, have kept quiet and put up with it all! You've got a cheek, I'm sorry to have to say! However, if you want a fight, I'm your man!"
"So that's what you think, you bungler!" my cousin said. "You're actually trying to talk yourself out of it! Yours aren't the only boots I've worn, so I know what good boots are, you feeble idiot. And you're insulting me, into the bargain. I'll give you such a hiding that you won't enjoy another meal as long as you live r
"Before you give me that hiding, I'll hack you to bits with my shoemaker's knife, see?"
Observing that they were about to come to blows, we intervened and with great difficulty calmed them down. It was agreed that Ion was to give Pavel another irmilic11 while the latter was to mend his boots and forget about the quarrel.
They would sometimes crack a joke after that but it went against the grain and Mogorogea couldn't get over the insult he had suffered at Pavel's hands.
During carnival week12 uncle Vasile came to Fălticeni and among other foodstuffs brought his son three sucking pigs, all prepared and ready for roasting.
"Welcome, father," Ion said kissing his hand. "So you found us all right, did you?"
"Glad to find you in good health, my boys," uncle Vasile answered. "They say that the blind found the town of Suceava all right, so how should I have missed you?" Then after talking about this and that, he asked us the direct question: "And what's the opinion of the Board concerning your ordination? Is he going to let you through soon? For, truth to say, I've had enough of so much worry and expense."
"You don't call him a Board, father, but the Reverend Principal," Ion said, a bit uncomfortable because of his father's ignorance.
"There, there, your Highness! as if that's what I'm worrying about, now. As we say: It's not the master but his man; but like master like man and they're much of a muchness. And if it comes to that why not call things by their names? Be it Board or Hoard, winning or skinning, or whatever its name, son; what I do know is that he's jolly well fleecing us," said uncle Vasile. "They say that a priest has four eyes! Better pray and implore the holy St. Nicholas of Humuleşti to help you into the priesthood! And then you'll find -yourselves out of all difficulties; you've no taxes to pay, nor offerings in kind; at dinners you're head of the feast and put away pies and roast fowls; and they'll pay you, too, for blunting your teeth. You know the saying: If a priest has a horse's legs, a wolf's mouth, a thick skin and a mare's belly, he'll want nothing else. It would be a good thing, God's mercy upon me, if church dignitaries were somewhat different! But you will have heard that a priest's hand will grasp rather than give away; he thrives upon the living and upon the dead. Just look at the way the Board lives, no hard work like ours. However, grace must be honoured!"
"I've already spied a kamelavkion for you, son," uncle Vasile said, when he was going. "Try not to dawdle but lay hands on that certificate as soon as you can come home, for Ioana, daughter of Grigoraş Roşu in our village, is looking forward to being a clergyman's wife. Farewell to you both, Zaharia and nephew mine, for I'm going."
"Farewell uncle", we said seeing him some distance on his way; "and please to tell our parents that we're in good health and our thoughts are with them."
When uncle Vasile had gone, I gently put it to Ion:
"Cousin, let's roast one of those piglets tonight; I'm just dying for one!" Mogorogea, stupid and mean as he was, began to shout at me:
"Now listen, you two; I'm not Nică Oşlobanu that you should make a laughing-stock of me. As you feed me, so I'll feed you. Not a bite of these piglets will you get, not if you were to burst."
"And if we don't get any, may he burst who talks in that way!" said Gîtlan.
"Amen", I added, under my breath.
"And I'll join in", Pavel said from behind the stove.
"Amen or no Amen, you just keep your thoughts off the piglets," says Mogorogea nastily, "is that clear? You're always after delicacies; well, you'll do without them and you won't be the worse for it!"
"Leave him alone, chaps; may those piglets choke him in the next world!" says Zaharia.
And we started working at our books, Heaven help us! Yet, if the truth be told, we felt no more like working than a dog feels like licking salt. A mighty fire had been burning in the stove; we'd raked it together and covered it up, for there was a frost outside. Old Bodrîngă had got tied up somewhere or other that night and Pavel, having no work to do, had turned in early. While Mogorogea, his thoughts fixed on that kamelavkion of his father's, had gone to sleep before Pavel, his feet safe within the sleeves of his furred coat as usual, and was now snoring away. As you might say, they had given up.
A bit later we put out the light and went to bed, only we couldn't fall asleep for thoughts of that piglet.
"I say, Zaharia, haven't you any of those "posts" anywhere?" I said under my breath.
"No, man," Zaharia answers even more softly; "and Lord, what a good thing it would be for Mogorogea. Here's the best I can suggest. Take my knife, gently cut the sewing of Mogorogea's sleeve under his foot, singe it thoroughly with these matches that burn without flaming up, and he'll have no pleasure from those piglets I'll warrant you. But look out and be quick about it."
"Give me that knife," I said, "and whatever happens I hope you won't let me down and won't allow him to beat me."
"No fear of that," said Zaharia. "Singe away and don't worry!"
Then I took my courage in both hands and did just what Gîtlan had advised me to do. Gently cutting through the stitches, I applied as big a bunch of matches as ever you saw to my cousin's heel, where the skin is thickest, until he felt the burn. Suddenly he roared as loud as could be. Away I leaped, matches and all, and slipped behind Zaharia's back. We both started snoring as if we'd been sleeping goodness knows how long. Meanwhile Ion, his feet tied up in the sleeves of his fur coat, had fallen flat on the ground, writhing like a snake and cursing us with any curses that came to his lips:
"Damnation! God blast you, you filthy swine, you! There's no getting a wink of sleep, in this house, for the likes of you! Now, whoever played that trick on me? Zaharia and Nică I hear them snoring and I shouldn't think they'd dare. It's that thief, Pavel, who's done it, may the gadfly suck him dry when he's in his sweetest sleep! There he is, pretending to be asleep too! The rotter! Let me just teach him to make a laughing-stock of people!"
With that he took a live ember from the fire and got upon the stove by Pavel. And as he was lying on his back, poor man, fast asleep, Mogorogea put the ember on his chest saying:
"There, that's for the fun you've had with me, you miserable cobbler!"
A fearful roar went up and at the same time Pavel, lashing out with his feet against the stove, broke it to bits. In the sudden confusion that ensued, finding himself face to face with Ion, a savage struggle broke out between the two of them, and there were we with ringside seats, if only we could have sat it out.
"Up with you, Zaharia, there'll be murder in this house and we'll have to answer for it," I said, shaking like an aspen leaf with fright.
"Hey you! what's come over you!" said Zaharia springing between them like an eagle. "Do you call this a decent man's house?"
I, meanwhile, rushed out of doors weeping, and began to shout as loud as I could to summon the neighbours. People jumped up on all sides, heavy with sleep, thinking there was a fire or that the soldiers were murdering of us, God forbid! For there was a German army quartered at Fàlticeni at that time.
When the rumpus had subsided, people left us as they'd found us and went back to their houses, cursing and swearing at us. You should have seen the shocking state the house was in, with wreckage all round: windows broken, the stove dashed to the ground, handfuls of hair torn out of heads, blood upon the ground. Pavel burnt in the breast and Ion, nursing his burnt heel, sat on one side, panting; Zaharia and myself on the other, amazed at what had gone on; while as for the innocent piglets, hanging in the lobby to keep cool, I never knew what happened to them. Zaharia wishing to put an end to the silence, said after a while:
"Sing to them, Ion: 'Hallelujah, those unspotted of the world' and give up yearning for them; it's plain that was their destiny, poor little dears!"
"You shut your trap", said Ion, well-nigh bursting. "You've never stopped talking about them and now you've had your way with them."
At this juncture back came old Bodrîngă, fuddled with drink, and began to cross himself as soon as he entered the door.
"Well, nuncle," I said, "what do you think of this. Do you like it?" Pavel, who had so far sat without uttering a word, looked round sorrowfully and said:
"Look here, you clerics; to put an end to all this enmity, get out and leave me alone!"
Relieved to get off so lightly, we took what was left of our belongings and moved over the way to a smith's, taking old Bodrînă our one consolation, along with us.
During Lent a rumour spread among us students that the seminary would be closed and that the younger ones would be transferred to Socola13.
"There's a good one for you, as good as ruin," said Trăsnea; "once you're nearly there, you find you've missed your way. As they say: We're done in, horses and all. It must have been the devil himself prompting me to bother my head over grammar. Had I known, I might have stayed at home, and all the money that has been spent like water, father could have put to better use."
"Same here," sighed the married seminarists; "we've spent our last farthing; gold coins, sheep and hives too, horses and oxen, they've all gone swallowed by a ravenous wolf, the Reverend Principal, long life to him!"
"Stop it, brothers," Zaharia replied. "Money is the very devil and that's a fact! Why be so hard on the poor man? As if he were the only one! And as to you, really, you are hard to please. Have you never heard the saying: Come up in the cart! Not on your life! Come up in the gig! Not on your life! Come, let's walk! Not on your life! Rather say that you're going back to your own kind as water finds its level. I for one am glad of this change. To Socola we should go, if we want to be turned out chockfull of learning. They've got the most learned teachers in the world there, I've heard."
"To Socola we'll go," the younger students shouted.
"Go to the dogs, if you wish, like greyhounds un- leashed!" shouted the older ones.
And thus, close upon Easter, did we break up and go our ways, on the understanding that whoever wished to join the school at Socola would do so the following autumn, in the year 1855.
Bucharest, September, 1881
by Ion Creangă
As the mountain bear will not leave its lair, the peasant from the hills his field, nor the babe be taken from its mother's breast, so was it hard for me, even with all my mother's pleadings, to leave Humuleşti that autumn of the year 1855, when the time came for me to go to Socola. And why wouldn't I leave Humuleşti for the world, when mother was telling me that it was for my own good? This is the reason why: as God would have it, I was no longer a boy, alas! And the town of Jassy, that I had never seen, was not close to Neamţ, like Fălticeni, from where in the late autumn or during the Christmas carnival, when the nights were long, I was able to run home from time to time. I would slip away about vespers and walk apace on moonlit nights, with my friends, going to the nightly gatherings that we knew of at Humuleşti walking post-haste all the way like coach horses. After dancing a while, we were wont to give a kiss on the sly to some of the more flighty girls, and vanishing from the village before daylight, would be back in Fălticeni about lunchtime; on each of the journeys there and back we would wade across the ford barefoot, opposite the Baths, the river Moldova being frozen along its banks so that the very marrow within our bones would be numb! But our hearts were warm for whatever we planned would come true! From Neamţ to Fălticeni and from Fălticeni to Neamţ was just child's play for us in those days.
But this was a different story: the short distance of two post-miles1 from Fălticeni to Neamţ was a very different matter from the six long and tiresome post-miles, neither more, nor less, from Jassy to Neamţ. Nor am I just trying to be funny when I say that from Neamţ to Jassy is the same distance exactly as from Jassy to Neamţ. Far better for you to stay here, Ion, my boy, I was thinking in my simple mind, than weep disconsolate and wither away pining for the love of someone I could name! Yet there is a saying: A bear will not dance of its own accord. There was no choice open to me, I had to do what my mother was urging, I had to depart, whether I liked it or not, and leave behind all I loved!
Dear to my heart was our village with the smooth-flowing crystal-clear Ozana, wherein the Neamţ Castle has sadly been mirroring its face for so many centuries! Dear to my heart were father and mother, brothers and sisters and the youngsters of the village, my youthful companions, with whom on frosty winter days we had had such fun sliding and sledging on the ice; while in summer, on holidays, when the weather was fine, singing and shouting, we'd scour the woods and shady glades, the banks where we sunned ourselves, and the bathing places, the fields and the crops, the plains with lovely flowers and the stately hills from beyond which dawn and hope would beckon at that lusty time of youth! I loved too the nightly gatherings, the evening working sessions, the dances and all the village merry-makings, wherein I joined with the utmost zest! Even if you had been a block of stone, you couldn't have sat still when you heard Mihai, the fiddler of Humuleşti, walking the village in the dead of night with a crowd of young fellows in his wake, singing:
Tender leaf of springtime green,
Sad and tender was her strain
So many were the songs the fiddler would sing and play upon his sweet-sounding fiddle! And so many the other merry-makings in the village, that the whole year seemed one long holiday! Which reminds me of an old woman's saying: God's blessing upon us and a yearful of holidays, and only one work-day, and that a celebration or a wedding. And now you're thinking of leaving your village, my boy, with its charm and its beauty, and going to that strange and faraway place, if your wretched heart will let you! And I tried very hard to make mother understand that I might pine and sicken for love of her, and even die among strangers, that my cousin Ion Mogorogea, Gheorghe Trăsnea and Nică Oşlobanu had given up study and that they were still eating their bread in their parents' house for all that. But it was useless work! Mother had other plans in her mind; she carefully prepared all the necessaries and eventually said to me in deadly earnest:
"Ion, you must always keep your good name and never abandon peace for strife! You'll go where I say. Gîtlan's Zaharia will go with you. Old Luca, our neighbour, is going to drive you in his cart, with his two fiery steeds. Come now, run along to his house and see if he's ready to go. For tomorrow at daybreak you're setting out, God willing."
"I won't mother, I'm not going to Socola, not if you kill me," I said crying my eyes out. "People have lived and they still do without being ordained."
"It's no good whining, my lad!" said mother quite unmoved. "It won't work with me. You know by now the way I am. Don't drive me too hard or I'll fetch that stick from behind the chimney and put it across you, big as you are!"
Then she called father and said to him firmly:
"Do tell this boy what he must be told, so that he'll stop wishing we'll change our minds, and get himself ready for his journey."
"There's no question about that," father said gloomily. "He shall do as we say, not as he wishes, for he's not independent yet. If that were my only care, good woman, I'd have no care in the world. But how to meet the expense, that's what's worrying me; for money does not lie about like fire-wood. These six or more besides him, who're staying behind, will they live on nothing? Yet he, being the eldest, it's his privilege; we've got to try and get him launched, for you never know the sum of man's days! And maybe sometime he'll be a help to the others!"
Seeing there was no way of resisting their decision, I began to think of my departure, but sorrowfully reflecting in my mind: "I really am up against a brick wall! Our village priests have never been through the Socola school and God's grace! Their belts won't meet round their fat bellies! As to monks, they're a crowd of lazybones and rakes from all the four quarters, who've settled in these monasteries and to what heights will they not rise? But when it comes to me, I have to go through so many schools: at Humuleşti, at Broşteni in the very heart of the mountains, at Neamţ, at Fălticeni and now at Socola, just to be permitted to become a miserable priest, with a wife and children; really, it's asking too much!"
I very nearly told mother that I'd turn monk at Neamţ or at Secu, and with the amount of learning I had, or had not, I might, in a few years' time, become superintendent in some small monastery and lay by a tubful of gold coins such as Father Kirilaş, of Vînătorii Neamţului, ammassed from carting wood.
And then—Holy Ilarie—you just sling your flask of arrack on your hip, shove plenty of fresh caviar and some more tasty morsels in your great-coat pockets, stick your pistols in your belt beneath your monk's frock, and tilt your hat over one ear; then armed with the sword of the Spirit, your long hair blowing about, you hurry off past "The Evil Spot", towards the "Cursed Pathway" between Secu and Agapia-on-the-Hill, where you can hear an angelic voice singing all summer:
Here I linger by the rill,
While some deep bass voice answers:
There am I come from the hill,
For, miserable sinner that I was, quite unintentionally, I had discovered something of the monastic secrets, while I'd been walking with the boys during the summer, pretending to pick mushrooms in those places where I'd taken a fancy to monastic life, as a fellow steeped in piety always will, you know.
To go back to my story at last: the night before setting out I pondered in my mind until daybreak how I might soften mother's heart and go to a monastery instead; and just as I had decided to tell mother these things, lo and behold, there's the sun ushering in a beautiful day. Old Luca, who was now married a second time and whose young wife had been anxious to wake him in good time and get him ready for the journey, suddenly called outside: "Ready? Come on! I am waiting horses and all." Mother then began to rush me into setting out, leaving me no time to tell her about my plans to become a monk.
To make a long story short, we and Zaharia's relatives collected in old Luca's yard, we kissed our parents' hands, taking our leave with tears in our eyes; and when we had climbed into the cart as sorrowful and tearful as could be, old Luca, our driver, whipped up the horses, saying to his wife who was shutting the gates after us:
"Olimpiada, my dear, mind that hole, do!" It had been made by some pigs which, having broken down the palings in one place, had grown fond of the maize in his garden.
It was the morning of the Day of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, as we drove out of Humuleşti; girls and young men, dressed in their Sunday best, were busily bustling here and there, with joy upon their faces! Only myself and Zaharia, squatting in old Luca's cart, were being driven into banishment, a forfeit to the devil! I can't think of a more appropriate and fitting term.
"Please drive on faster, nuncle," I said, "so that the village won't stare at us as if we were bears on show." But old Luca was driving in his own way, for his horses were singularly worn out, weak and scraggy like feeble kittens and no fiery steeds as mother would have it, doing her best to get me out of the house.
"A curse upon whoever's done away with those seminaries just when we need them," Gitlan's Zaharia said bitterly when we were out of the village. "Just when a man should be enjoying the days of his youth, he's got to set to book learning; as if there were ten lives to be lived! Continually going from one school to another all to no purpose, any day now we'll find ourselves turning into sickly, weak old men, just right for the priesthood, as soon we've finished at Socola!"
"What do you say to such goings on, nuncle?"
"What should I say, master Zaharia? What do I know of your regulations? I've got to drive you to the appointed place and from then on you'll manage as best you can. Gee up, horses, so that we may be back home the sooner."
As we heard old Luca lovingly speak of home and as we saw the villages and the lovely places we were leaving drop behind and ever new ones starting up before us, our anger knew no bounds! Every well, stream, valley, glade and other favourite place that we left behind drew a deep sigh from our breasts! And if we had done as we then felt, we should have turned back there and then; only we were in old Luca's trust and we stood in awe of him as well as of our parents.
After a brief halt at the bridge of Timişeşti over the waters of the Moldova, we drove on to Moţca and climbed slowly along by the woods of Păşcani. Then from the top of that wooded mountain we, unhappy souls, looked back once more, in sorrow, upon the Neamţ mountains, those giants, their tops hidden in the clouds where streams sprang up, and from which swift rivers poured down, whispering secrets in their never ending course and maybe carrying much human yearning and pain along with them to drown them in the stately Danube.
"Well, well, Zaharia, old boy," I said as we were driving down-hill towards Păşcani, "we've lost sight of the mountains now and our banishment is a fact for God knows how long!"
"As the Holy Lord will have it," said Zaharia, his voice almost gone. Then he sat brooding all the way to Blăgeşti, across the Siret, where we put up for the night. But what a night! Here, in the porch of a wheelright's house, we nearly went blind; from evening to midnight we lay in the smoke of burning dung, as in quarantine, yet the mosquitoes had the better of us.
"That's life in the plains for you," old Luca said, tossing and turning this way and that, as if on tenterhooks because of the mosquitoes. "As soon as you cross the Siret, the water's bad and wood is scarce; in summer you're smothered with heat and the mosquitoes are a perfect curse. I wouldn't live in the plains for the world! Ours are fine places! The waters are sweet to the taste, crystal-clear and ice-cold, there's wood in plenty, in summer it's cool and shady everywhere, the people are healthier, tougher, stronger and more cheerful, not like these dwellers in the plains, withered and puckered as if they'd been living on toasted mushrooms all their lives."
"You know what, uncle Luca," Zaharia said after a while; "the Pleiades are setting, so is Orion, and the morning star is soon due; let us start on our way!"
"Right you are, master Zaharia; a Saint has spoken through your mouth. Rather than turn and toss about on this porch let us shorten the way. For God Almighty's in heaven and he will keep us from evil."
And thus, taking leave of our host, who was lying in the open, under another porch, away we drove.
And as soon as we were out on the high-road by good fortune we came upon some men with cartloads of shingles driving to Jassy. We travelled with them for fear of the gipsies of Ruginoasa and we made splendid progress till, at daybreak, there we were at Tîrgu Frumos where we forthwith split a few water-melons to quench our thirst and still our hunger. Then when the horses were somewhat rested, on we went towards Podu-Leloaei, and from there still further on to Jassy, more often walking than driving, for old Luca's horses had grown very weak, and the peasants coming and going, who're fond of a joke, would make biting remarks, so that we were uncomfortable because of old Luca's shame.
And particularly about sundown, as we were just entering the town of Jassy, along Păcurari Street, the very devil of a strapping fellow mocked us outright saying:
"Take care, old man, hold those steeds in check, lest they gallop away, for this town of Jassy is a large one and, God help me, you may wreak havoc in it!"
That was the last straw for old Luca; he poured out on him all possible and impossible curses.
"Just listen to that! If he only knew, the lazy devil, where we'd started from last night, he'd hold his tongue; he wouldn't go on at my horses in that fashion! And it's not the first time that I've been to Jassy, and I've no need to take advice from the likes of him as to the kind of pace I've got to go, damn and blast him! If he'd just stopped a while, I'd have taught him to mock at travellers another time!"
Seeing that people were making fun of us and that old Luca was put out and beside himself we crept under a rug as we were sitting in the cart, myself rather timidly saying: "Nuncle, if anyone asks you, from now on, why the horses are pulling so hard, just tell them that you're bringing some blocks of salt from the mines and see if they'll believe you!"
"So that's it? I didn't know that you were that sort," old Luca said, walking by the horses bitterly enraged. "Don't provoke me or I'll slash you through that rug to get the devil out of you!"
Hearing what was in store for us, we nudged each other in the ribs and squeaking with suppressed laughter, we just sat mum. At long last, after many a flick and a sting that old Luca collected on all sides, for people can be very nasty when you're driving at a slow steady pace, in and out of pot-holes, through all the bumps and ruts of the Jassy streets, we eventually came, late at night, to the yard of Socola; and we drove under a great big poplar tree where we found plenty of students from all the seminaries of Moldavia; some were young, but most of them wore great big unkempt beards like yard brooms; they were sitting upon the grass with their parents, clerics and lay people together, telling each other of their troubles!
by Ion Creangă
NOTE ON THE PRONUNCIATION OF ROMANIAN
The purpose of this note is to give English-speaking readers some indication as to the correct pronunciation of Romanian words.
Here are the letters of the Romanian alphabet and their pronunciation:
To sum up, Romanian orthography is almost entirely phonetical, a letter representing one and the same sound, in all positions, with a few exceptions. We call the reader's attention to the pronunciation of the following combinations of letters:
ce........ as che in cherry. e.g. Ocea, Kogălniceanu