The cannons were silent, the battle was over—the brave had fallen.
The field, which so lately had been the scene of wild and desperate contention, was now silent as the grave; only the thunder of heaven and the moaning of the breeze were to be heard, while the lurid lightning gleamed across the plain, as if the spirits of the dead had begun a new and inexorable strife on high, to guard the gates of heaven, as, an hour before, they had defended the frontiers of their country against their foes.
In the churchyard, before the gates of Kezdi-Vasarhely, the Szekely women anxiously awaited, not the return of the beloved, but the news of the victory.
They sat in groups on the gravestones and green mounds, listening all day to the cannon, and trying to distinguish the distant sounds.
“That is ours—that is Gabor Aron—and that the enemy—and now the thunder of heaven.”
And all—mothers, young girls, brides, wives, breathed the same fervent wish—that if the beloved should return, it might be with glory; but that if the day were lost which was to decide the fate of their country, none might return to tell it!
On the threshold of the chapel, by the crypt-door, sat an old man: he was past eighty—his eyes were dim and lustreless, and his voice faint and trembling: he, too, had come out to the churchyard to wait the issue of the battle, for he could not rest at home; beside him sat a cripple, who had one leg shrunk up, but although the body was weak and sickly, every thought of his heart was in the battle-field, and he frequently exclaimed, in bitterness of spirit, “Why cannot I too be there?”
The cripple knelt beside the old man, and read to him out of the Bible. The passage was in Samuel, about the battles of Israel—the holy war, in which thirty thousand had fallen guarding the ark of God.
“Why cannot I be there?” sighed the unhappy youth, and read:
“‘And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.
“‘And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army, and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head.
“‘And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city, and told it, all the city cried out.
“‘And when Eli heard the noise of the crying, he said, What meaneth the noise of this tumult? And the man came in hastily, and told Eli.
“‘Now Eli was ninety and eight years old; and his eyes were dim, that he could not see.'”
The cripple could read no more; he looked at the old man, his heart sickened, and his eyes filled with tears.
“Why do you not continue?” asked the old man.
“It is dark; I cannot see the words.”
“That is false; I feel the last rays of the sun on my face; why do you not read on?”
The cripple wiped the tears from his eyes, and again began to read:—
“‘And the man said unto Eli, I am he that came out of the army, and I fled to-day out of the army. And he said, What is there done, my son?
“‘And the messenger answered and said, Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken.'”
But here he could no longer contain himself, and, sobbing bitterly, he leant his head on the old man’s knee, and hid his face in his hands.
The latter did not insist on his reading any more; but repeated, in a low voice, the well-known verse:
“‘And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died.'”
Beneath an acacia tree, at a little distance from the rest, stood two females.
The eldest might have been six-and-thirty; her features, though stern and severe, were still beautiful, and her dark lustrous eyes glowed with the fire of enthusiasm. She was very pale, and the lightning which glimmered around her gave a still more livid hue to her features.
Judith—for so she was called—was a true type of the Szekely women; one of those unfading forms who retain to an advanced age the keen expression of countenance, the brilliancy of the large dark eye, the thrilling and musical tones, and slender but vigorous form; while the mind, instead of decaying, grows stronger with years.
Round her majestic figure, a slight girl of sixteen twined her arms, clinging to her like the gentle convolvulus to the stately pine.
Aranka was a lovely blue-eyed maiden, with bright golden locks, and a form so fragile, that it seemed to bend like the lily to the breeze.
She was betrothed to the son of that proud matron to whom she clung, and the eyes of the mother and the bride sought the beloved, as they gazed eagerly through the dim apace.
“Do you not see a form approaching there?” asked Judith, pointing towards the plain.
Aranka drew still closer, that she might see the object pointed out; her head rested on Judith’s shoulder, but she could not discern anything, for the starry beam of the blue eye cannot pierce the distance, like the more fiery ray of the black eye.
In a few minutes the form became more distinct, and the timid blush of love flitted over the young girl’s cheek, while a deep flush of anger mantled on the mother’s.
“It is he, my beloved!” murmured Aranka, pressing her small hand on her heart, as if to still the little flutterer.
“He has no arms!” cried Judith with horror, as she turned away her head, and covered her eyes with her hand; for, though still indistinct to others, the gentle girl recognised her lover, and the mother had seen her son’s disgrace.
With slow and uncertain steps the figure approached; his head hung dejectedly on his breast, and he appeared to move with pain.
On seeing the women assembled in the churchyard, he bent his steps thither.
They all now recognised Judith’s son, and surrounded the mother as he approached.
The churchyard moat lay between the mother and her son. Unable to cross it, the young man sank on the ground before it. His clothes were torn and covered with blood, and his hand endeavoured to conceal a wound in his breast.
“Where have you left your arms?” cried his mother in a stern voice, advancing from among the crowd.
He would have replied, that he had left it in his enemy’s heart; but he had not strength to speak, and the words died on his mouth.
“Speak! is the battle lost?”
The youth made a sign of the affirmative.
“And why did you not fall with the rest? Why did you leave the field for the sun to rise on your disgrace? Why have you come hither?”
The youth was silent.
“Wherefore should you desire to outlive your country? And, if you have come to be buried here, better far to have sought a grave where it had been glory to have died—on the battle-field. Away! This churchyard has no place for you—you can have no part among our dead—leave us, and deny that you were born here! Live or die, but forget us.”
The youth looked in his mother’s face with an imploring expression, and then at the women who surrounded her; but he encountered no glance—no trace of sympathy—his eyes sought his bride, his heart’s brightest hopes, the blue-eyed maiden; but she had fallen on her knees at his mother’s feet, hiding her face in Judith’s dress, to conceal her sobs.
The youth still hesitated—still waited to see if any one would bid him stay; and when he saw that none spoke, not even his bride, he raised himself slowly and silently from the earth, still holding his hand across his breast, and, with tottering steps, turned once more to the trackless plain, and wandered into the woods beyond, where he sank never to rise again.
One or two of the Szekely youths returned afterwards from the lost field, but the women refused them admittance.
“Seek another home,” they said, “than the one you could not defend!”
And the few who survived wandered into distant countries, for none dared return who had outlived his country’s ruin.
Bitter were the sounds of weeping and lamentation in the churchyard of Kezdi-Vasarhely—the cry of the Szekely women rose to heaven.
The old man at the crypt-door asked, in a feeble voice, the cause of the weeping.
“Szekely-land is lost!” they cried; “your son and your grandsons have fallen on the field with their leader, and Gabor Aron; and all their cannon is taken!”
The old man raised his hands and sightless eyes to heaven. “My God!” he exclaimed, and, sinking to the earth, he ceased to be blind; for the light of eternity had risen on his spirit.
The old man was dead.
The Szekely women surrounded the body with deep reverence, and bore it in their arms into the town.
The cripple followed slowly on his crutches, repeating bitterly to himself, “Why could not I have been there too? why could not I have fallen among them?”
In all Kezdi-Vasarhely there was not a man to be seen; the brave had fallen, the deserters had been turned away, and the last man they were now placing in his coffin, and he was an old man past eighty, and blind.
Only women and children now remained—widows and orphans—who wept bitterly round the old man’s bier, but not for the dead.
The cripple knelt unheeded at the foot of the coffin; and hid his face in his hands, as he heard them say that the last man was dead; they did not consider him as one!
The house was quite full, as well as the court—for the old man’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren formed a large congregation; and all those to whom he had done good during his life, whom he had assisted with his counsel or supported in their sorrow—how many there were! and yet the greater part was absent, covering the battle-field!—and among all his sons and grandsons, only that one cripple was present, and he was not considered as a man!
They had all their dead to mourn—all their peculiar sorrows, but none more than the high-minded Judith, and the poor cripple,—and yet they alone wept not. A restless fever burned within them, and, instead of tears, sparks of fire seemed to burst from their eyes.
In the midst of the weeping and lamentation, Judith beckoned the cripple aside.
“David!” she exclaimed, taking the youth’s damp, cold hand, “your grandfather lies stretched out before you, and yet you stand beside the coffin without shedding a tear! what are you thinking of? Last night I heard you sighing and tossing on your bed—you never slept—what were you thinking of then, David?”
The cripple hung his head in silence.
“David, if you were a strong, sound man—if you could hold a sword or a lance, instead of those crutches—would you hang your head in silence as you do now?”
The cripple raised his glowing face, and his large, dark eyes met Judith’s with such a gleam of enthusiasm, it seemed as if the ardent spirit had forgotten for a moment the weakness of its mortal dwelling.
“And you will never be happy,” she continued; “no joys await your lot in this life, and yet who knows how long that life may be. Speak! should death appear before you in its most brilliant form—more glorious than on the battle-field—and bid you cast away your crutches and embrace the weapons of destruction, giving you all you loved on earth as a funeral pile to perish around you, that none should remain to whom your thoughts might return from the other world”—
“I do not understand you.”
“You will not, perhaps. The world is still fair to you, even amidst ruins, and blasted by dishonour; unfortunate as you are, life is still dear—even your crutches are not to be exchanged for wings!”
“Oh! speak not thus; how often would I have given the life I abhor for the death I envy!” exclaimed the unhappy youth; and added, in a lower tone, “for the death of glory!”
“And what death would be more glorious than yours? on a battle-field in which the elements themselves should join, where you would stand in the midst, high above all, like the angel of death, proclaiming resistance to the last, in a voice which would be heard above the battle-cry; and, when all had fallen, when there remained none to help, you alone would snatch the victory from the enemy’s hand, and bear it with you—not to the grave, but to heaven!”
“O that I could!” sighed the cripple; “but what is my voice? it would not be heard in battle; and my arm could snatch the victory from none!”
“Listen to me! The victors will arrive to-day or to-morrow; but neither repose nor enjoyment shall await them here—they shall find every door closed, and our weapons shall be the reply to theirs. If the men of Kezdi-Vasarhely have fallen in defence of their country, the women shall not be unworthy of them! We shall lose—for the arm of woman is weak, though her heart is strong—we have neither the weapons nor the force to resist, only the will; and therefore our aim is not victory, but an honourable death. You will go up to the tower, and when you see the enemy approaching at a distance, ring the bell; we will then carry out the dead to be buried, and await the hated foe beside his grave; and woe to them if they try to enter by force, we shall defend every house to the last—despair will teach us to fight; and should fear or hesitation overcome our weak hearts for an instant, the voice of your bell will revive our courage, and inspire us with new strength. And you must not cease one moment till the combat is over; then take the wreaths of tarred pine, which you will find in a niche of the tower ready prepared, and when the enemy have taken possession of the town, throw them down on the roofs of the houses! Thus you will regain the town from the enemy, and, amidst smoke and flames—the funeral-pile of all you love on earth—you will bear victory along with you to heaven!”
The cripple listened with increasing agitation to Judith’s words; and when she had finished, he dashed away his crutches, and, falling at her feet, embraced her knees, and murmured some unintelligible words; but the enthusiasm which glowed in every feature told how the spirit rejoiced to meet the death she had portrayed in such brilliant colours.
“Will you have courage?” asked Judith.
“Oh! I shall rejoice in it! I shall no longer be a cripple—no longer unhappy; I shall die like a hero! and when the flames are bursting around me, I shall sing with the prophet, ‘Cry out, ye gates, cry out, O city, for the terrible day of the Lord is come!'”
And the cripple trembled violently with agitation, and his withered arm was raised to heaven.
Judith gazed at him in silence, as he still knelt, with his hands and eyes upraised, as if inspired.
“Come with me!” she exclaimed, after a few moments’ pause, raising him from the ground.
David took up his crutches and followed her, with such joyful alacrity that his feet scarcely seemed to touch the earth; he appeared already to possess wings instead of crutches.
As they passed the chamber of the dead, he approached his grandfather’s coffin, and, kissing the cold face and hands, murmured, with an expression of unwonted joy, “We shall meet soon!”
The women looked at him with surprise; they had never seen him smile thus before, and thought that grief had estranged his mind. Judith left the room, telling them she would soon return, and herself conducted the cripple to the tower, while he followed with a vigour he had hitherto never displayed;—the spirit seemed actually bearing up the fragile body.
When they reached the top, Judith kissed the cripple’s brow, and pressed his hand in silence.
David locked the door after her, and threw the key out of the window along with his crutches.
“I shall want them no more,” he cried, as Judith passed below the tower. “I wish to be certain that I shall not fail in the hour of temptation.”
He then placed himself at the window, and looked out towards the mountains.
Judith returned to the house of mourning, and found the women still weeping round the bier.
She motioned to them to dry their tears—her majestic form, calm features, and commanding eye, seemed formed to be obeyed. The women were silent, and Judith addressed them in a clear, steady voice:
“Sisters!—widows and orphans of Kezdi-Vasarhely!—Heaven has visited us with great and severe trials; we have outlived all that was good—all that we loved on earth; there is not a house in which some beloved one was not expected who will never now return! However long we may live, no happiness awaits us in this world! we may grow old and gray in our deserted homes, but the best part of our lives lies beneath the sod; and this is not the heaviest stroke which awaits us. Instead of the beloved, those who have shed their heart’s-blood will come—we shall see them take possession of the places which our beloved ones have left; instead of the familiar voices, we shall hear the harsh tones, and meet the unfeeling gaze of strangers—of our bitter enemies! Shall we await that time? Death gives back all that life has taken away—and death can take nothing but life! If I did not know that I am among Szekely women, I would take leave of you, and say, I go alone to die! but I know you all—where I am you will be also; you will act as I do, and be worthy of your dead. Go home to your houses, conceal everything you value; make fires in every stove, and boil water and oil in every vessel. At the first sound of the bell, let every one of you assemble here; we will then carry out the dead to the gate of the town, and dig his grave across the road before it, and with this moat the town shall be closed—none shall pass from within alive! Haste! put your houses in order, and return here at the first sound of the bell!”
The women dispersed—with the calmness of despair they went home, and did as Judith desired, and collected all the weapons they could find, but not another tear was shed.
The bell of the tower had begun to toll; it was the only bell left in Kezdi-Vasarhely; the rest had all been founded into cannon. Clouds of dust were seen to rise far off on the winding mountain-path, above Predialo, and the tolling of the bell announced the approach of the Russian troops. Two companies marched towards the gates of Kezdi-Vasarhely; one from without, the other from within the town. One was formed of hardened soldiers, the other of women and girls. On one side the enlivening sound of military music was heard, and colours floated on the breeze; on the other, the dismal tones of the funeral song arose, and mourning veils fluttered round the bier.
A troop of Circassian horsemen paused before the gates. Their dress, their features, their language—all seemed to recall a strange image of the past, of those ancient times when first the Magyar people sought a home in the unknown world—for even then, persecuted by fate, they wandered forth in millions, driven from their own country; and some found a home among the wild mountains of the Caucasus, others wandered still farther, and the parted brethren never met, or heard of each other more, till, mingled with the surrounding nations, both had changed; and when, a thousand years later, the world’s caprice once more brought them together, and they met as foes, both were struck by some strange sympathy, some sad chord which touched each alike, and their hearts felt oppressed, and their arms sank, they knew not wherefore.
The leader of the troop was a young chief, whose oval face, handsome sunburnt features, and dark eyes, bore great resemblance to the Szekely Magyar, and if he had worn a dolmany, none would have distinguished the one from the other; but his dress was not that of the present Magyar, and yet the crimson-bordered toque, the short linen vest, beneath which flowed the long coloured kaftan, the curved sword—even the manner of girding it on—all recalled some well-known object, like a portrait once seen, the name of which we have forgotten, or the impression caused by some dream, or bygone scene of childhood, and we sigh to be unable to speak to them, or understand their language, to ask if they are happier among their mountains than their brothers on the plain, or if they, too, weep like us; and bid them, when they return, and sit in the evenings at the threshold of their mountain homes—those which they so bravely defended, speak of us to their children, and point to where the setting sun gilds the home of the Magyar, and breathe a prayer for their suffering brethren.
The grave was dug, and the women stood before it chanting their mournful dirges, while the measure was now and then interrupted by sobs, and the solemn bell tolled the knell of death—the death of the town.
The leader of the troop alighted from his horse, his comrades followed his example, and taking their csalmas from their heads, they clasped their hands and stood beside the grave in silent prayer. Who would have thought that these were enemies?
After a pause of a few minutes, the leader made a motion to approach the women on the opposite side of the grave, but Judith calmly advanced, and waved him back. “Approach not,” she exclaimed—”the grave is the boundary between us; there is nothing to seek in the town—none but women and children inhabit it—the widows and orphans of those you have killed; and here, in this grave, lies the last man of Kezdi-Vasarhely, a holy man, whom God permitted to live eighty-nine years, to be the friend and counsellor of the whole town, and has now called to Himself, because the town has no more need of him: his spirit fled at the first news of the lost battle, for he was blind ten years: had he not been blind, the steel and not the news of the battle would have killed him, as it killed the rest. The women of Kezdi-Vasarhely have buried him here, that none may enter the town. They wish to live in solitude, as becomes widows whose husbands have fallen in battle; and therefore, blessed be the grave which shuts us out from the world, and accursed be he who steps over it, both before and after his death!”
The Circassian drew a white handkerchief from his bosom, and placing it on the end of his spear, spoke to the Szekely women in a language unknown to them, although the tone, and even the accent, seemed familiar. He wished to tell them that he had brought peace to their town; that they had nothing to fear from him; that he only desired admittance. The women understood his intention, but motioned a refusal. “In vain you bring peace!” they exclaimed; “as long as there is a living breath here, there must be war between us and you; only death can bring us peace. Seek quarters for your troops elsewhere; the world is large enough—there is no rest for you here; grief reigns alone in this town, where the ghosts of the grave wander through the streets, women bewailing the dead, and driven by despair to madness—depart from here!”
The action of the women, the unknown yet familiar tones, awakened a strange sad echo in the heart of the young Circassian, as he stood supported on his lance, looking on the mourners before him.
Brought up in the stern exercise of military duty, he was accustomed to fulfil the word of command, without regard to circumstances; but now his strength seemed to fail him, and he hesitated to force his way through a party of weak women.
“Take the white handkerchief from your lance,” cried Judith, “and steep it in our heart’s blood—then you may enter our town;” and as he leapt into the saddle, several of the women threw themselves before his horse’s feet, causing the animal to rear and neigh.
But the Circassian remembered that he had a beloved mother at home whose words so much resembled those of that proud matron—and sisters, and a young bride, beautiful as those young girls who had thrown themselves before his horse’s feet—with just such dark glorious eyes, sad features, and light forms; and his heart failed him. He turned quickly aside, that the women might not see the tears which filled his eyes; and then, dashing his spurs into his horse’s side, he once more waved his white handkerchief to the kneeling women, and galloped from the gate. His comrades hastened after him; their lances gleamed through clouds of dust, which soon concealed them from view; but neither the Szekely nor the Circassian women saw that young chieftain more.
He was summoned before a military tribunal for transgression of duty, and suffered the stern fate of the soldier.
Troops of a different nature were sent next against the town, whose horses trampled down the grave, and whose bayonets forced open the closed doors.
It was a weary strife, without the glory of war; one by one each house was taken, defended as they were by women and children; the contest was renewed in every street; the infuriated inhabitants pouring boiling water and oil over the heads of their enemies, while the fearful tolling of the bell, heard above the cries and the clang of arms, excited them to still greater desperation.
The combat continued till night, when the song of triumph was heard in the streets—the town was in the hands of the enemy. Suddenly, as if it had descended from heaven, fire burst from the roofs of the houses, and in an instant, the wind coming to the assistance of the flames, carried the fiery embers from one end of the town to the other. Cries of despair arose amidst the howling of the blast, but dense clouds of smoke concealed all but the flames which darted through them, devouring as they passed; and high above, the roof of the tower blazed like a gigantic torch, while the solemn tolling still continued, the voice of battle, of fire, of tempest, and of death: a fearful crash was heard, and all was still—the bell had fallen.
The two elements remained joint masters of the field. The wind and the flames contended over the ruins of Kezdi-Vasarhely.