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   Chapter 1 THE FIRE-POT.

Told by the Death's Head By Mór Jókai Characters: 16677

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The hero of our romantic narrative, or better, narratives, was a constable. Not one of that useful class appointed, in our day, to direct the vehicles which pass over the two approaches to the suspension-bridge in Budapest; rather, he was the chief of a body whose task it is to provoke disturbance, who win all the more praise and glory the greater the havoc and destruction they create. In a word: he was a gunner.

The chronicle of his exploits gives only his Christian name, which was "Hugo."

In the year 1688, when the French beleaguered Coblentz, Hugo had charge of the battery in the outermost tower of Ehrenbreitstein fortress-the "Montalembert Tower."

Coblentz and Ehrenbreitstein are opposite one another on the banks of the Rhine, as are Pesth and Ofen; and the Blocksberg looks down on us, as does the citadel of Ehrenbreitstein on Coblentz.

The city, which is strongly fortified on all sides, had become accustomed to being beleaguered-now by the French, now by the Prussians; today by the Austrians, tomorrow by the Swedes.

On the occasion of which I write, Coblentz was under a terrible fire from the French guns, which created great havoc in that portion of the city known as the "Old Town."

Specially memorable and remarkable was the manner in which the "fire-balls" seemed to know just where to find the abodes of the duke, and the commandant of the fortress. It mattered not how often they changed their quarters, the Frenchmen would always discover them, and aim accordingly-though it was impossible to see into the city from outside the walls. There certainly must have been some witch-craft at work. Hugo's Montalembert tower was on the side of the fortress most exposed to the assaults of the enemy; its successful defense, therefore, was all the more worthy of praise.

The management of ordnance in those days was not the comparatively simple matter it is today, with the Krupp and the Uchatius guns. It was a real science to fetch from the furnace a white-hot cannon-ball, ram it into the long, slender culverin, and if, after the discharge, the ball remained sticking in the throat of the gun, to remove it with the various forceps, nippers, and tongs; and, after every shot, to examine with a curious implement resembling Mercury's caducens, the interior of the culverin to learn whether the discharge had caused a rupture anywhere.

However, it is not necessary to be a great genius in order to master all the intricacies and technicalities of a gunner's trade. An ordinary man might even learn, after some practice, how to handle an "elephant;" and, if he were intrusted with the quadrant, he might also manage to discharge the heavier bombs with satisfactory result. It must be remembered, though, that a gunner needs to possess considerable skill as well as experience in order to hurl successfully against the approaching foe a "fire-shield," which discharges simultaneously from every one of its thirty-five holes as many bullets; and the "storm-tub" requires even more dexterity. This implement of warfare runs on two wheels. The axles are spiked with keen-edged knives, and the wheels are filled with gunpowder, which ignites and explodes when the machine is set in motion. If the powder ignites promptly in both wheels at the same instant, the infernal thing dashes like an infuriated bull into the ranks of the enemy, burning the eyes of some, scorching the beards of others, and hacking and slashing everything with which its revolving knives come in contact. If the powder in only one of the wheels explodes, the machine spins around on the motionless wheel like a top, and scatters an entire company; if the second wheel explodes only half a second after the first, then those who have the management of the demon will do well to take to their heels with all speed possible.

It is not necessary to explain at length the advantages of the chain-shot. Anyone will be able to understand its operation if he will but remember that, when two balls connected by a chain are discharged toward the enemy, and one of the balls strikes a man, the other ball will, naturally, circle around the unfortunate until the entire length of chain is wound tightly about him; the circling ball, meanwhile, will strike with various results: the head, the nose, the ear, or some other portion of the bodies of the soldiers within its radius. It is greatly to be regretted that the use of the "handle-ball" has been discontinued. This weapon was shaped very much like two pot-ladles, bound together at the handles by an iron ring. The man who chanced to be caught between the two ladles might congratulate himself that he escaped with nothing worse than a choking; while the two soldiers on his right and left, whose heads had been caught in the bowls of the ladles, would remember, to the end of their days, the peculiar and disagreeable sensation experienced. There were two more wonderful implements of warfare: one a German, the other a French invention. The former, which was an emanation from Hugo's brain, was called a "Bombenjungen-werfer."[1] It was a huge mortar, the central cavity capable of holding a bomb of fifty pounds weight; surrounding this cavity were eight smaller bores, each holding a five-pound bomb. The same charge hurled every one of the nine bombs in rapid succession from the mortar; and one can imagine the astonishment of the Frenchman when, after hearing but one report, the eight "babies" followed, one after the other, the mother bomb.

[1] Anglice: "Hurler of baby-bombs."

This was a diversion Hugo prepared for the beleaguerers, who in return invented an amusement for him. It was a "fire-pot," was shaped exactly like the earthen water-jug the Hungarian reaper carries with him to the harvest field to preserve his drinking-water fresh and cool. The machine was made of iron, and filled with a diabolical mixture. It had four spouts-precisely like our water-jug-from which the fire would hiss and sputter; it was intended to set fire to everything combustible where it fell.

The Germans also had what are called "fire-balls," which hiss and spit, and set fire to everything about them; and other bombs which explode the moment they touch the earth. The French fire-pot, however, combined these two properties: it set fire first, and exploded afterward.

The beleaguered understood very well how to manage a fire-ball. Like Helene Zrinyi, the heroine who defended the fortress of Munkács, the Germans had learned, so soon as a fire-ball fell inside the walls, to cover it with a wet bullock's-hide, which would at once smother the fire-spitting monster, and render it harmless.

But the fire-pot was not to be treated so summarily. If the Germans attempted to smother the fire-demon, to prevent the air from reaching his four noses, he would burst, and woe to him who chanced to be in the way of the flying splinters! He, at least, would have no further desire to sport with a fire-pot.

It happened one day that a fire-pot, which had fallen inside the fortress, did not explode after it had hissed and spit out its fury. When it became cool enough it was taken to Hugo.

"Now I shall find out what is inside this dangerous missile," remarked the constable; "then I'll make some like it and send them to our friends over yonder."

Over the neck of the fire-pot was a sort of hat, shaped like those covering the necks of the Hungarian wooden bottles (esutora). This hat, of course, could be removed. After this discovery Hugo invited the commandant, the grand-duke, the governor and mayor of the city, the syndic, and the duke's alchemist to be present at the opening of the fire-pot.

Now each one of the invited said to himself: "It will be enough if the others are there-why should I go? The infernal machine may explode when they are opening it."

And so they all stopped bravely at home and Hugo alone found out what was in the fire-pot.

After it was opened, and Hugo had convinced himself of the nature of the diabolical compound it contained, he proceeded to cast several fire-pots like the French one; and, in the presence of the commandant and the grand-duke, shot them into the enemy's camp. The two distinguished gentlemen, who were peering through their telescopes, were highly delighted when they saw the bombs, which flew

through the air like dragons with tails of fire, reach the points at which they had been aimed, ignite everything inflammable, and afterward explode. Now and again it would happen that one of Hugo's fire-pots would fail to explode in the Frenchmen's camp, just as theirs would sometimes fail to do what was expected of them. But Hugo always collected the enemy's unexploded bombs, and, after opening and refilling them with fresh explosives, would hurl them back whence they came.

Oh, I tell you war was conducted in those good old days on economical lines!

As late even as the year 1809 Napoleon had his men collect 28,000 of the enemy's cannon-balls on the battle-field of Wagram, and shot them back at the Austrians; and had the fight continued two days longer, the opposing armies would have ricocheted the same balls back and forth so long as the cannonading made it necessary.

The grand-duke, as was proper, rewarded the constable for his discovery by an increase of pay-from sixteen to twenty thalers a month; and in addition made him a present of a barrel of strong beer, which gave offence to the commandant, who was obliged to quench his thirst with a weaker brew.

Hugo had many enviers, but none of them ventured to pick a quarrel with him. He had the frame of an athlete; his face, with its luxuriant red-beard, resembled that of a lion. He was always in a good humor; no one had ever seen Hugo angry, embarrassed, or frightened. There were no traces of trouble and grief on his countenance. He was perhaps forty years of age, was somewhat disfigured by small-pox pits, but wherever there was a pretty girl or woman to be won, Hugo was sure to attract her. He was fond of good living-liked everything to be of the best, consequently his money never remained long in his pockets.

The constable's epicurean tastes irritated the mayor, who, as chief of the city militia, outranked the artillerist. But Hugo managed on all occasions to out-do his superior officer. Rieke, the trim little suttler-wife, would slap the militia captain's fingers if he ventured to give her a chin-chuck, but a hearty hug from the smiling constable never met with a repulse. In consequence of the siege prices for the necessaries, as well as for the luxuries of life, had become exorbitant in both cities. Three thalers was the unheard-of price asked at market for a fat goose. The mayor's wife haggled for a long time about the price without success, when along came pretty Rieke.

"How much for your goose?" she asked.

"Three thalers."

"I'll take it."

She paid the money and marched away with the goose.

By some means the mayor learned that Hugo had a baked fat goose for his dinner.

"Look here, constable," he said next day to the artillerist, "how comes it that you can afford to feast on fat goose while I, the mayor, and your superior officer, must content myself with lean herring, cheese and bread? Your pay is only twenty thalers a month; mine is three florins a day. Pray tell me how you manage it?"

To which Hugo made answer:

"Well, mayor, if I wanted to deceive you, I should say that the money for all the good things I enjoy does not come from my pocket; that Rieke, who is infatuated with me (how I managed that part of the business I shouldn't tell you), supplies me with whatever I want. But I'll be honest with you and tell you the truth-but pray don't betray my secret, for I don't want to have anything to do with the priests. What I tell you is in strictest confidence and must not go any farther: I have a magic thaler, one of those coins, vulgarly called a 'breeding-penny,' that always returns to my pocket no matter how often I may spend it-"

"You don't say so! And how came you by such a coin, constable?"

"I'll tell you that, too, mayor, only be careful not to let the Capuchins hear of it. I got the thaler in the Hochstatt marshes, from a bocksritter-"[2]

[2] Satyr.

"I hope you didn't bond your soul to him for it?" interrupted the mayor.

"Not I. I outwitted the devil by giving the ritter an ignorant Jew lad in my stead."

"You must keep that transaction a secret," cautioned the mayor; then he hastened to repeat what he had heard to the grand-duke.

"Would to heaven every thaler I possess were a breeding-penny!" exclaimed the high-born gentleman. "It would make the carrying on a war an easy matter."

From the day it became known that Constable Hugo possessed that never-failing treasure, a magic coin, and was in league with the all-powerful bocksritter, he rose in the esteem of his fellows.

Meanwhile Ehrenbreitstein and Coblentz continued under bombardment from the Frenchmen. The enemy's fire-pots never failed to find the grand-duke's quarters, notwithstanding the fact that he changed them every day. This at last became so annoying that treason began to be suspected, and the duke offered a reward for the detection of the spy who gave the information to the enemy. That a spy was at work in the German camp was beyond question, though the outlets of both cities were so closely guarded that it would have been impossible for a living mortal to pass through them. Nor could the treason have been committed by means of carrier-pigeons, for, whatever of domestic fowl-kind had been in the cities had long since been devoured by the hungry citizens. The mayor, ever on the alert for transgressors, had his suspicions as to who might be the spy. Every man but one in the beleaguered cities fasted, lamented, prayed, cursed, wept, as the case might be, save this one man, who remained constantly cheerful, smiling, well-fed.

When one of the Frenchmen's fiery monsters came hissing and spitting into the fortress this one man, instead of taking to his heels and seeking the shelter of a cellar, as did the rest of his comrades, would coolly wait until the fire-pot fell to the ground, and, if it failed to burst he would dig it out of the earth into which it had bored itself and carry it to the foundry.

Surely this was more than foolhardiness!

The constable always opened the enemy's unexploded fire-pots in his subterranean work-room; refilled them there, then hurled them back without delay. There was something more than amusement behind this.

One day, when Hugo came up from his subterranean workroom, he encountered the mayor, who said to him:

"Stay, constable, I want to see what you put into that fire-pot-open it."

Without a moment's hesitation Hugo unscrewed the lid and revealed the explosives wrapped in coarse linen; at the same time he explained how much gunpowder, hazel-wood charcoal, sulphur, resin, pitch, sal-ammoniac, borax and acetate of lead were necessary to make up the amount of unquenchable fire required for the bomb.

"Very good," quoth the city functionary, "but what beside these is there in the bottom of the pot?"

"Under this earthen plate, your honor, is more gunpowder. When the explosives on top are burnt out this plate, which has become red-hot, explodes the powder and bursts the bomb-that is the whole secret of the infernal machine."

"I should like to see what is under the earthen plate."

As the mayor spoke these words the constable gave a sudden glance over his shoulder. In the glance was expressed all the temerity of the adventurer, mingled with rage, determination and alarm. But only for an instant. The mayor's bailiffs surrounded him, closing every avenue of escape. Then he burst into a loud laugh, shrugged his shoulders, and said:

"Very well, your honor, see for yourself what is under the earthen plate."

The mayor forced open with the blade of his pocket-knife the earthen plate. There was no powder in the bottom of the bomb, only some ordinary sand; but in it was concealed a folded paper that contained a minute description of the situation in the German camp.

"Bind him in chains!" exclaimed the mayor in a triumphant voice. "At last we have the proofs of your treachery, knave! I'll give you a pretty Rieke! I'll serve up a fat goose for you!"

Hugo continued to laugh while the bailiffs were placing the fetters on his hands and feet.

As if to complete the evidence against him, there came hissing at that moment a fire-pot from the French camp. When it was opened and the earthen plate removed it was found to contain two hundred Albert thalers!

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