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   Chapter 3 MALACHI.

Told by the Death's Head By Mór Jókai Characters: 17615

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The next day the prisoner continued his confession:

My experience at Berdiczov monastery, my deliverance from destruction, as well as the miraculous restoration of my crippled limb, decided me to adopt the faith of the holy brotherhood.

Their solemn ceremonies, their elevating devotions, their piety, made a deep impression on me; but the most comforting to me of all their rites was that of the confessional.

It was such a comfort to unbosom myself to one in whom I could trust implicitly; to confide in him all the secrets that tortured my dreams by night, and my thoughts by day. And then, to receive absolution-to get back, as it were, the bond I had given to Satan!

One day was not long enough for all I had to tell. I could have spent every day of the week in the confessional, pouring into the ear of the good Father Agapitus the sins which burdened my conscience. And one day I confessed, too, that I was becoming weary of the life in the monastery, where there was nothing to do but tend to the sick all day long; and that I wanted to go back to the world-if not to my former sinful life.

After I had confessed, I ventured to ask the worthy father to recommend me to some Polish noble, with whom I should have little work and much amusement. There were many such places, I said, where the services of a man of my stamp were required.

"My dear son," returned the worthy father, "I cannot recommend you to a Christian man of the world, for, although I could tell him that you are a pious confrater now, I could not say that you have always been honest. I know just the contrary, and I cannot give false witness. But I will do what I can for you. Here is the crutch you left with us-the gold is still in it. Take it, garb yourself in beggar raiment, and limp to Lemberg, where lives a Master Malachi in the Jewish quarter of the city. You need only to inquire for him, and you will be directed to his house. He is a wicked man, in league with Satan. He deserves to have been sent to the scaffold long ago-and he will get there should the Inquisition be established. Malachi is the man for your needs. Tell him what you require, he will understand you-especially if you tell him what your crutch contains!"

I could understand clearly that a pious man like Father Agapitus could do nothing for me-so notorious a sinner! He could not give me a letter of recommendation, with false dates; it was enough if he directed me where to find an accomplished counterfeiter, who could supply my wants. So, I kissed his hand in gratitude; bade him farewell, and, with my crutch under my shoulder, set out for Lemberg, begging my way so that no one should suspect that I carried in my crutch the wherewith to pay for food and lodging.

When I arrived in Lemberg I repaired at once to the Jews' quarter, where the streets are so narrow two wagons cannot pass one another. Directly I entered the principal thoroughfare, which seemed a veritable rag-fair from one end to the other, I was surrounded by a swarm of noisy children.

I took from my pocket a denarius, held it up before them, and said I would give it to the lad who would conduct me to the house of Malachi, whereupon the youngsters began to quarrel as to which of them should become the possessor of the coin. The largest scamp among them, who succeeded by force of his superior size and strength to vanquish his fellows, offered himself as guide.

He led me a pretty chase, through numerous byways and alleys, where there was hardly room for two persons to pass, to a shop in front of which was sitting an aged dame, with her cap drawn down to her eyebrows.

Said my guide, after I had placed the denarius in his hand:

"This woman knows where Malachi lives-she will tell you;" and before I could stop him, the little rascal was off down the street as fast as his legs could carry him.

I turned to the crone, who kept nodding her old head as if she were assenting to anything I might say to her, took from my pocket a Marien-groschen, and holding it toward her, said:

"Here, mother, this pretty coin shall be yours if you will direct me to Malachi's house."

She nodded-as much as to say "very good;" rose from her chair, shuffled into the shop, where she filled a small vial with red Polish brandy. This she handed to me with one hand, at the same time extending the other for the money.

"I don't want brandy-I want to know where Malachi lives?" I shouted at the top of my voice.

The dame trotted back into the shop and brought a bottle of green Russian brandy.

The little scamp had left me to deal with a deaf woman! When I bawled into her ear for the third time the name of Malachi, she fetched from the shop a packet of insect powder which she offered in exchange for the Marien-groschen.

Then I bethought me of an expedient which is usually successful in like cases: I took from my pocket a crown and held it toward the dame. This cure for deafness proved effective.

"Oh, you want to find Malachi?" she said in a cautious whisper, nodding understandingly. "Follow me."

She closed and locked the shop-door, opened a little gate at the corner of the house, led me across a vegetable garden hung with soiled clothes; across a second; thence through a narrow passage, between two old buildings, into a wood-shed; from there into a cellar; then over a swinging bridge across an ill-smelling canal; and, lastly, through a long, seemingly interminable corridor, at the end of which she knocked with her staff at a wooden door, at the same time whispering in my ear, and taking the crown from my hand:

"I can't tell you where Malachi lives; but I have brought you to the thaumaturgus, who knows everything; he will tell you where to find Malachi."

The door opened, and I saw before me a venerable man with silvery hair and beard. He was blind. His tall form was enveloped in a black silk robe girt about the waist by an oriental sash. From his garb, I concluded that a coin of greater value would be necessary to procure the information I desired.

"Are you the man who knows everything?" I inquired.

The old gentleman was not in the least chary of words. With great readiness he declared that he understood the language of the birds of the air; the speech of the beasts of the field; that he could converse with dragons; could discover subterranean springs; could tell any man whether or no he was the son of his father; could even understand the tongue in which demons spake-

"But," I interrupted, "I don't want to know any of these things. If you will tell me where Malachi lives, I will pay for the information."

"Ah, my son!" he responded, turning his sightless eyes heavenward; "that is a difficult question to answer. There are in this world as many Malachis as there are flowers in the field, and stars in the sky. There are seventy-seven in this very city; a Malachi Mizraim; a Malachi Meschugge; a Malachi Choschen; Malachi Pinkas; Malachi Honnowas-How do I know which Malachi you want?"

"I want the one who is a-counterfeiter," I answered, with some hesitation.

"Ah, my son!" again ejaculated the venerable sage, shaking his head sadly, "how sorry I am to hear that you are on such evil ways! All the Malachis with whom I have to do are honest, God-fearing men."

I saw plainly that I should have to assist the old gentleman's memory; I pressed a gold coin into his palm. He turned it over and over in his fingers; tested it in various ways; and, after convincing himself that it was genuine, he delivered this apothegmatic solution of the riddle:

"My son, he whom you seek, I cannot find. I have never seen him-I am blind. We will consult the Miracle."

He stepped back into the room, to the table, where he groped about with his hands among the different objects, until he found a long steel needle. This he thrust between the leaves of a heavy book lying on the table, opened it, and placing his forefinger at the point of the needle, where it rested on the page, said, in a prophetic tone:

"He whom the Miracle designates is Ben Malachi Peixoto, the Portuguese-not I, but the Miracle says so."

"And where shall I find this Portuguese?" I asked.

"When you go from the door of my dwelling, you will find his directly opposite. Knock twice, then once, then twice again, and you will be admitted. And now, my son, go your way in peace!"

A stocky youth, with a candle, conducted me down a dark stairway, opened the door, and I found myself in the same street from which I had started on my quest. Malachi's house was the first one on the corner. I had been led a tramp, for half a day, hither and thither, up and down, through the entire Ghetto, to reach the first house in it!

I knocked on the door as I had been directed; it was opened by a qui

nce-colored lad. I cannot say for certain whether it was a lad or a lass, I think, though, it was a lad. I could not understand the language he spoke-indeed, I don't believe it was a language at all! He conducted me up a creaking staircase, into a darkened room, in the corner of which crouched a human form with its back to the door. He did not turn at my entrance, but kept his face turned from me all the time I was in the room.

In front of him was a mirror in which he could see my reflection. The fleeting glimpse I caught of his face in the glass, told me that the mysterious creature had no beard; his face was quite smooth, which I believe is the fashion among Portuguese Jews; it had been embrocated with orpiment, which eats off the hair of the beard-a Mosaic law prohibiting the use of metal to remove hair from the face.

"Is Malachi at home?" I inquired.

"Malachi is at home; what do you want of him?"

The man spoke in the third person, so that I could not have sworn that he to whom I addressed my inquiries was Malachi or not.

"I will tell you my errand as briefly as possible," said I. "I want to secure a position in the household of Duke Visznovieczky, and require a patent of nobility to certify to my noble birth. I also want an academic testimonial; a certificate of baptism and confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church; and, lastly, I want a letter of recommendation from some grand duke or other, which testifies to my erudition, and skill in all the sciences, as well as to my excellent character. Of course I don't expect you to furnish me with all these documents for nothing. I am willing to pay your price for them. How much do you ask?"

The man replied to my reflection in the mirror: "Malachi's answer to your insolent request is: You have applied to the wrong person. Malachi does not meddle with such criminal doings. Moreover, Malachi has nothing whatever to do with ragged beggars like yourself. If you desire to become such a knight as you describe, and have the money to pay for the transformation, go to Malachi's cousin, Malchus, the tailor, who sells gentlemen's clothing. He lives on the corner of Bethel street, beside the fountain. From him you can buy all manner of fine raiment. Malchus will transform you to a noble knight-if you have the money to pay for it. And now be gone from here, and don't come back again, for Malachi is an honest man whose lips do not utter falsehoods; his fingers have never been stained with the ink of forgery."

Firmly believing that he was the Malachi I sought, I departed from his house with a disappointed heart, and betook myself to Bethel street, to the house beside the fountain, where I found Malchus the tailor. I would at least exchange my beggar's garb for the raiment of a gentleman.

"How glad I am to see your lordship again!" exclaimed the little man, as I stepped into his door. "May I become as the dust of the street, if it doesn't seem a hundred years since I saw you last! But, does your lordship imagine I could fail to recognize the noble knight Zdenko Kochanovszki, who, in fulfillment of a vow, journeyed on foot, and garbed as a pilgrim, to Jerusalem and back? Have not I, Malchus the tailor, eyes to see? I'll wager my head against a button, that nobody but myself would recognize your lordship in those ragged garments. Could the beautiful Persida, from whom your lordship received the magnificent wreath at the tournament, see you now, she would say: 'Give this ragged beggar a penny, and drive him away.' She is a duchess now, the wife of the powerful Duke Visznovieczki. But I have not forgotten your lordship; I still have the clothes your lordship left in pledge with me-also the embroidered leather-belt with the bag containing the documents. I kept them all, safely concealed, for I knew your lordship, the brave and noble Zdenko Kochanovszki, would return from the holy land and redeem his pledge."

I saw at once that I should have to accept the personality thrust upon me by the loquacious little tailor, and call myself Zdenko Kochanovszki; and when I found how admirably the puissant knight's cast-off garments fitted me, I no longer hesitated to take possession of his name also.

And that is how I became Zdenko Kochanovszki. When I was completely garbed-and a stately mazar, I looked in the knight's habiliments!-I asked Malchus what was to pay.

"Why, surely your lordship remembers the sum I advanced on the clothes? Of course, I did not count in the loan the jeweled clasps your lordship desired to be sent to the beautiful Persida; so you owe me only a round hundred ducats-"

"A hundred ducats?" I repeated in consternation. "Why there isn't in all Poland a waywode who can boast of so costly a suit of clothes."

Malchus smiled slyly: "That is very true, my lord, and there is not in all Poland a magnate who can boast of more valuable documents than those in the bag attached to your lordship's leather-belt. When your lordship left them with me and charged me to care for them as for the apple of my eye, I knew they must be of great importance. So I have kept them safely concealed all these years. I don't know what the papers contain as I can read only what I write with my own hand. I don't understand Latin, or Greek; and I don't know how to read from left to right; consequently your lordship may believe me when I say I have not read the papers. Your lordship will find everything in the bag just as when it was placed in my hands for safe keeping."

I opened the bag, and, on examining the documents, found to my surprise and delight that they were just what I wanted. There was a patent of nobility, with a Turk's head in the crest-(concerning the Turk's head I might justly have appropriated it for my own escutcheon, only I had not come into possession of it on the battlefield!) There was also an academic certificate, from the Rector of Sarbonne, with the baccalaureate degree; also certificates of baptism and confirmation, signed by the bishop of Cracow; a testimonial of valor from the imperial commander-in-chief, Montecucculi; and a pardon from the patriarch of Jerusalem-such as are bestowed on pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre-all of which were the property of Zdenko Kochanovszki-who I was!

Malchus continued to smile slyly while I was examining the documents, and when I had read the last one he said:

"Doesn't your lordship think these handsome clothes are worth one hundred ducats?"

I gave him a hearty slap on the back; then counted out a "round hundred ducats." The clothes were not worth one-tenth that sum, but I was quite satisfied with my purchase.

I was now fully equipped for my entrance to the ducal palace; as Zdenko Kochanovszki I might without hesitation seek admittance anywhere.

He to whom the name rightly belonged had disappeared eight years before, and had most likely lost his life in the Holy Land, or in the battle with the infidels in Hungary. Whoever still remembered the beardless youth, would not wonder at the great change eight years of hardship and danger had made in him; and would expect to find the man a different looking person from the boy. As for my looks-I doubt if my own mother would have recognized me.

The duke was an old man, of a girth so enormous that he was obliged to wear a broad surcingle as support to his rotund paunch. His hair and beard were gray on the right side, but black on the left, which gave him a very peculiar appearance.

When I presented myself before him, he seized both my hands, and exclaimed:

"What! Zdenko Kochanovszki back again? The devil! What a man you are grown! Do you remember what we did at parting?"

I was confused for a moment: how was I to remember what I had never known? However, I had to reply, so I stammered what I thought the most probable:

"We drank to each other, your grace."

"By heaven, you are right, lad! That is what we did! But, do you also remember our wager?"

I ventured another guess, and answered:

"Each wagered he could drink the other under the table."

"Ha, ha, ha! Right-right!" shouted his grace, embracing and kissing me. "That's what we wagered-and the devil fly away with me if I don't match you again this very moment! Ho, there, fetch the bratina."

The bratina is a huge golden beaker that holds two quarts. This was brought to me, filled with Hegyaljaner wine.

Now, I had fasted for many hours, and was both hungry and thirsty, so that it did not require much of an effort on my part to empty the bratina at a draught-to the supernaculum!

"The devil fetch me!" roared the jovial duke. "If I had not recognized you already, I should know you now!"

I had no difficulty drinking his grace under the table; and from that hour I became an important member of his household.

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