MoboReader > Literature > Told by the Death's Head

   Chapter 9 THE SATYRS.

Told by the Death's Head By Mór Jókai Characters: 15090

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Not until the shadows of night had settled around me did I learn into what an accursed region I had strayed. It was the notorious "kempenei"-the rendezvous of witches and all evil spirits.

When it became quite dark, the jack-o'-lanterns began to flit over the moor-as if the witches were dancing a minuet; and suddenly I heard a tumult of shrieks and yells, and looking upward I beheld the most repulsive lot of females it has ever been the lot of man to see.

They had hairy chins; and huge warts on their noses. They came rushing through the air, seated on the shoulders of pallid-faced male forms. Each hag hung her mount by the bridle around his neck to a limb of one of the dead trees, and clapped her heels three times together before she descended to the ground. Then the witches held a council, and each one detailed the evil she had perpetrated the past twenty-four hours. I heard one say boastfully:

"I sent an angry woman running after her cap, which her husband had thrown on the quicksands, and I let her sink to her death. The man escaped-"

Here her sister-witches fell on her and beat her with switches, because she had allowed a man to escape from her.

"Let me alone! Let me alone!" she shrieked. "I'll find him yet-he won't get away from me a second time!"

Terror seized me anew. I shuddered, and pressed as closely as possible into my mossy bed.

Then the hags began to arrange their plans for the next day. They would send the "Bocksritter" to attack a caravan that was coming to Antwerp.

I had heard a good deal about the Bocksritter, a mounted band of ferocious robbers, who looked like satyrs, and were in league with Satan. They were even more to be dreaded than the Haidemaken. When the satyrs committed an extensive robbery, they took good care not to let a single one of their victims escape alive-not even the infant in its cradle. They left no one to witness against them; and, as they fled at once to another country, it was impossible to learn anything about them. Where they committed their depredations and the officers of the law failed to find trace of them, it was concluded, and naturally, that the Bocksritter were a myth, and the story of their depredations an idle fable.

When the witches had decided their plans for the next day, the most hideous of the hideous crew began to peer about her, and sniff the air.

"I smell something!" she exclaimed; "something that doesn't belong here."

"It smells like a human being," said a second, also sniffing around her.

"Ha, if only it were the fellow who escaped me this morning!" with a snort exclaimed a third. "It wouldn't take me long to prepare him for a bridle"-she glanced as she concluded toward the pallid creatures hanging on the trees.

I pressed still further into the moss and ferns; but the raven on my shoulder began to flutter his wings, as if to attract the witches' attention.

"Some one is hiding over yonder!" they cried as with one voice. "Come on, sisters, let's tickle him!"

I heard them approach my hiding place, and in my despair I cried out:

"If God be with me, who can be against me!"

Hardly had the words left my lips when I received a blow on the ear from the raven's wing that made it tingle, but the witches had scattered in all directions, uttering frightful yells. When I lifted my head to look after them, the wind sweeping over the moor was driving before it the glimmering jack-o'-lanterns, which looked like a fleeing troop of torch-bearing soldiers.

Just then the moon rose above the horizon. It was in the last quarter, by which I knew it must be an hour after midnight.

I rose quickly, and prepared to set about performing the good deed I had determined on; I would hasten to meet the caravan travelling to Antwerp, and tell the leaders of the danger which threatened them from the Bocksritter.

I cast from me every fear that prompted me to avoid my fellow-creatures, and rejoiced that it was in my power to serve them a good turn.

Only after I had proceeded a considerable distance on my errand of mercy did it occur to me that I was unarmed, that I had nothing to defend myself from the wolves which infest that region, but a knife which I carried in a sheath at my side.

On my way, I came upon a slender yew tree-a straight beautiful stem, and hard as iron. I cut it down with my knife, and soon had a cudgel that would serve me well in an emergency. I could brain any wolf that might take a fancy to satisfy his appetite with my carcass.

I found my own hunger growing wolfish toward dawn, and when I came to the highway I looked about for an inn. I saw smoke rising from a chimney not far distant, and made my way toward the house, which proved to be one of entertainment for man and beast.

The inn-keeper, from whom I ordered some bread and cheese, was busy preparing in a large kettle a savory stew of meat and cabbage. I asked him to give me a dish of it, but he said he could not let me have any, as it was for a crowd of people who were coming with a large caravan that morning.

It was true then! I had really seen and heard the witches on the moor. It was not a dream.

I had not long to wait. A tinkling of bells announced the approach of the caravan while I was eating my breakfast.

There were vans and vehicles of all sorts, and all manner of traders; lace merchants, carpet dealers, weavers, goldsmiths, on their way to the fair at Antwerp. They had an escort of soldiers, with red and yellow jackets, and armed with muskets and halberds; also several dragoons with buff waistcoats.

Even the traders were armed with pistols and carbines. All were in high good humor when they entered the inn. The leader of the caravan, a pot-bellied thread dealer, ordered everything that was to be had from kitchen and cellar, and produced from his knapsack a large ham which he shared with some of his companions. Toward the close of the meal, he noticed me, and kindly offered me the gnawed ham-bone.

"Thank you," said I. "In return for this bare bone I will do you a kindness: Take my advice, and don't go any further today; or, if you cannot delay until tomorrow, send a strongly armed troop in advance of your caravan, and let one guard it in the rear, for you are in danger of an attack from the Bocksritter, who will leave your bones as bare as you have left this one you offer me!"

Then I repeated to the entire company what I had heard the witches say. But, a curse rested on me! No one believed me; they laughed at me, ridiculed my "witch-story," said I had dreamed it; and the inn-keeper threatened to cast me out of his house for trying to bring disrepute on it.

He averred that robbers were unknown in that neighborhood-there were no such disreputable characters anywhere but in Brabant and Spain, where they lurked in subterranean caverns like the marmots. Moreover, who was afraid of robbers? Not he!

The caravan's valiant escort were delighted with the prospect of a skirmish with the notorious Bocksritter-let them begin their attack! Everyone of the rascals would soon find himself spitted on an honest bayonet! There was so much boasting about the escort's prowess that at last I concluded the safest way for me to get to Antwerp would be to join the caravan; which I did.

All went well with us until late in the afternoon, when, as we were passing through a pine forest, the robbers suddenly fell upon us.

They appeared so suddenly that one might almost believe they sprang from the earth. They were masked; th

eir clothing was of black buffalo skin, laced with crimson cord. A black cock's feather adorned every hat.

The first salvo from their muskets laid low at least half of our company; then the villains fell on us with their swords and began a frightful butchery. The leader of the caravan tumbled from his steed before he received an injury, and had I not been in such haste to save my skin, I should have stopped to say to him:

"Why don't you laugh at me now, Mynheer Potbelly?"

But it was no time for jesting. I ran swiftly toward the road, on the further side of which was a dense growth of young firs, and beyond them a stretch of undulating moorland, where, I imagined, I might effect my escape. The long yew staff I carried served me well; by its aid I could jump from hillock to hillock, and thus make swifter progress than had I been on horseback.

"Let him run!" cried the robber captain, who was distinguished from the rest by the crimson ostrich plume on his hat. "Let him go; we will after him when we have finished here. He won't go very far."

I soon found he was right. I had not gone more than a hundred paces, when I came to a mound from which there was neither retreat, nor advance. It was made up of pebbles, sand and the gravelly soil of the highway, from which a narrow path led to the mound. On all sides were deep ditches filled with stagnant water, rank vines and noxious weeds; so that no one could cross them without risk to life or limb.

I was caught!

Out on the highway, my companions of the caravan were being exterminated to a man. None were allowed to escape.

When the work of carnage was completed there, the butchers turned their attention to me.

I was alone, and defenseless on my islet. The demons came toward me, laughing brutally, and in my despair I laughed too.

I said to myself: "I too will have some fun before I die!"

I loosed the leather belt from my waist, and made a sling of it. Pebbles lay at my feet in plenty for my David's battle with Goliath.

The robbers soon found they had to do with a skilled bombardier; my shots struck them and their horses with a force and regularity that began to tell on their ranks. Many were thrown from their saddles with skulls and ribs crushed.

The fun was not all on their side. Finding at last that I was not to be taken alive, they concluded to use me as a target for their muskets. One of them dismounted, lifted the musket from his shoulder, thrust the bayonet into the ground, and rested the gun on it. After he had arranged the priming in the pan, he called to me:

"Surrender, fellow, or I'll shoot you!"

"Try it," I called back, whirling the sling around my head. "Afterward I'll have a shot at you."

"Do you throw first," he called again.

"No, thank you-you are the challenger; do you shoot first."

He fired, and missed me.

Then I hurled my stone; it struck him on the jaw, and broke off his teeth.

Then a second, and a third, had a try at me without effect, but everyone of my shots inflicted serious injury.

I was not an expert gunner for nothing; I knew that when one is the target for a gunshot, one has but to watch closely when the match is applied to the priming; if two flashes are seen, then the aim will be faulty, the ball will fly wide of the mark, and it will not be necessary to dodge. If but one flash is seen, then it will be well to step to one side.

I had the advantage of the robbers; for, while they were preparing their muskets to fire, I could hurl five or six stones, and not one of them missed its mark. I hoped that one of the bullets whistling past my ears might hit the raven on my shoulders; but he was too shrewd a bird; he rose in the air, and I could hear the fluttering of his wings above my head.

At last the robbers were obliged to acknowledge that I had the better of them. Only one of them at a time could approach my islet over the narrow path; or wade up to his horse's neck through the weed-entangled morass, and that one would fall an easy prey to my sling.

"Stop!" now cried the wearer of the crimson plume. "This valiant fellow's life must be spared. He will be a valuable addition to our band. Let no one molest him-I will talk with him myself," saying which, he got off his horse, and came toward me unarmed. "Have no fear," he called to me. "You are a brave lad, and just the sort we need. We kill only cowards. If you will join us you shall not rue it."

What could I do? I was a fugitive, excluded from all honest and respectable society. I knew not where to turn. If I refused to join the robbers, I should have to flee from country to country; I might as well fly in company with others. The desire for revenge also prompted me to accept the leader's offer. I would punish the people who had ridiculed me, and condemned me because of a dream.

"Who are you?" I asked. "Are you Satan? I will not enter into a league with him."

"No, I am not Satan; I am the leader of the Bocksritter. If you will join us, you shall be corporal, and in time you may become the leader."

"Thank you," said I, "but I think I should prefer to remain simply a private. I have heard that the man who leagues himself with the 'satyrs,' binds his body to pain and death; and that he who becomes their leader must bond his soul to the devil-and that I will never do."

"Very well," he growled in response; "I regret to hear so brave a lad decide thus. Then bind yourself only to pain and death."

Our compact was sealed, and I was given the horse and outfit of one of the robbers I had killed in defending myself, and when the black mask had been adjusted over my face, I felt that I had ceased to belong to this world. I had no name-was nobody. I was a satyr, a foe to society. Whatever I might do thenceforth, whatever crime I might commit, no one would hear of it. The mask did not speak! The Bocksritter committed their horrible deeds of pillage and murder in the Netherlands; in Wurtemberg; along the Rhine; in Alsace and Lorraine. In which of them, or in how many, I took part-who can say? The mask does not speak!

Where we roved, what we did, who can say? Not I. Whether the satyrs robbed churches, whether they destroyed caravans, burned cities, desecrated convents and routed their inmates, plundered mines, devastated estates-who can say?

Whether I assisted at all the crimes they committed, or at only one-or whether I took part in none-who can say?

Was I the satyr that flung back into his burning house the usurious Jew who had escaped from it? or was I the one that rescued a babe from the flames and bore it on his saddle to the mother's arms?

Was I the satyr who placed the mine under the convent and exploded it? or was I the one who warned the nuns in time for them to escape-who can say? The mask does not speak.

"Well," observed the prince, "if you don't know; and the mask won't tell, then this entire chapter of your confession must be eliminated from the index."

Then he added further, in order to propitiate the chair: "Why, don't you see, that the prisoner did not become a satyr of his own free will? That he was forced to join the band under pain of death? If, while he was with the robbers, he committed good deeds, or evil, who-as he says himself-can say?"

"Aye, who indeed?" satirically responded the chair. "The mystery of the whole affair is so clear that no one will be able to say whether this valiant and pious Christian ought to be hanged, or this conscienceless reprobate ought to be canonized!"

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