In the northern part of Moldavia there is an immense Royal forest called Brotschéni, in many parts of which the woodman's axe has never been heard, and the foot of has never trod.
In the year 1538 the country round was not as beautiful as it is now, neither was it peaceful. The sound of weapons was frequently to be heard in the valleys. The women and children used to fly to the densest parts of the woods, for the terrible words, "The Turks are coming!" were constantly being passed on from village to village.
The Sultan Soliman was bent on devastating Moldavia, and in spite of his most valiant efforts Prince Petru Raresch had been conquered several times by the enemy. Sutschawa, his capital, was in the hands of the Turks, who, on their march to Piatra, were burning, pillaging, and massacring all they could lay hands on. Poor Moldavia was being ravaged in the most terrible manner, and all that could not be transported was ruined by the invaders.
The Turks knew neither pity nor mercy; they strangled the children and massacred all the women they did not wish to carry off, and, indeed, death was far preferable to the poor women than slavery under the Mussulman. The whole country presented a pitiable aspect; no domestic animals were to be seen, and there was neither corn nor hay anywhere.
With the remnant of his conquered army, Petru Raresch had to leave Piatra and get to Jesle by the Bistritza, as he knew that there would be provisions there for the soldiers and horses. The Prince had sent his three children to the fortress of Ciceu, but the Princess Helena had refused to be separated from him.
"The Turks will not take me," she said, "and I shall not leave you unless my presence should prove dangerous for you."
A little farther on than Hangu, in the church of Calugareni, they had taken refuge. This little church is sheltered by a colossal rock which, so the legend runs, the devil once took from the summit of the Tschachlau, intending to stop the course of the Bistritza with it. Just as he had lifted the great rock and was about to hurl it into the river, the cock began to crow, and the Evil Spirit, fearing the daylight, turned to fly, and the rock fell from his hand into the place where it now stands. Under the shadow of this huge rock, then, the Princess Helena was waiting, all eyes and ears for any news. Her delicate face changed colour frequently, and her nostrils quivered with excitement and anxiety. "Oh! what a disgrace it is to be conquered!" she exclaimed to the old monk with the snow-white beard, who had approached her.
"There is nothing irreparable save death," he replied, calmly.
"Nothing irreparable!" repeated the young wife, violently, "when we are completely lost! Why, perhaps this very day, old man as you are, you may be pierced through the heart with a yatagan!"
"That is quite possible!" was the quiet reply.
The gallop of a body of horse was heard on the rocky slope, and in another minute Raresch appeared, tearing along at full speed, a handful of horsemen just behind him. He stopped just long enough to lift his wife up into his saddle, and then, without uttering a word, continued his desperate flight along the bank of the stream. The Turks were , following close behind, but suddenly, in the very narrowest part of the ravine, the old monk appeared in front of them, and their horses reared with fright at his apparition.
"Halt!" he cried out. "What is it that you want here?"
"We want Raresch!, A hundred gold pieces are offered for his head. Show us where he is hiding or you are a dead man!"
The monk nodded his bead, and turning, led the way up a narrow path between the rocks, and with great trunks of trees projecting here and there. He went on and on, and the path grew steeper and steeper, until at last they came to an impenetrable wood. For a long time the horsemen followed him, and their poor beasts had to climb like cats. At last, however, they found they could go no farther; there was no way out of the dense wood, and in a perfect fury they turned on the old monk. They tore his clothes, nailed his hands and feet to a fallen tree, and then went away leaving him thus to his fate. The old man's lips turned blue with anguish, but he murmured:—
"I am nailed down, although not on the cross. And if it be not for the sake of humanity, it is at any rate for the sake of my country!"
He then closed his eyes, and without a murmur resigned himself to this slow, agonizing death. The fugitives meanwhile had taken a narrow path which led to the Forest of Brotschéni. When once they were there their road was very difficult, and it was necessary to know the fords well in order to cross the river so many times. If, however, they succeeded in doing this the enemy would completely lose track of them.
The Prince's horse was beginning to give way under his double burden, and only answered to the spurs by a quiver like a spasm passing through its frame.
"If your Highness will take my horse," said one of the men to the Princess, "I will dismount."
"But what about you?"
"We must not lose a moment, or it ma be too late!" was the only answer, and lifting the Princess quickly from her husband's arms the man placed her on his own horse and then disappeared quickly amongst the trees without waiting for any thanks. On, on they went, leaving the banks of the Bistritza and ascending the steep slope where at the present time a monastery commemorates the flight of Petru Raresch.
From afar the two rocky summits looked like the towers of a church. There was a cavern in the rock where anyone could very well hide, for it was surrounded by a dense wood, and on the trees which had fallen new shoots had sprung up, and were now giants in their turn. At almost every step the thick, mossy carpet gave way, and the horse's hoofs would sink in the rotten wood of a dead tree, which would crumble to pieces on the soil.
Suddenly, just in front of them, they heard, a terrible crackling sound and heavy breathing, and there, just by Helena's side, an ,auroch appeared with his horns lowered. The next instant he had run his terrible horns into her horse, and was preparing to take a second charge at Helena, but Raresch was too quick for him, and seizing the two horns—all covered with blood as they were—with almost supernatural strength, he twisted the monster's head so that his neck broke.* He then freed Helena from her horse and set her on her feet.
"Can you walk?" he asked, gently, just as though nothing extraordinary had happened.
Helena clung to him for a moment, and then answered bravely:—
"Yes, I could walk to the end of the world," but the deadly pallor of her cheeks betrayed her weakness.
"Then we will give up our horses, for they will be more trouble than help in these parts; and in order to throw our pursuers off-the scent, we must separate. I must get to Ciceu, and I shall not be long before I am there, even though it is some distance by the mountains. Stefanitza, take the Princess to the cavern, and stay there with her until I come back. You could not very well walk to the end of the world after all," he added, turning to his wife and throwing his arm round her.
"But must you leave me?" she asked.
"Not for long.…Listen, though, do you hear the Turks in the valley? Quick, there is not a moment to lose!"
He stooped down and kissed her, and then with whips and stones they drove the horses away in all directions, and Raresch bid farewell to his young wife, whom he was obliged to leave in the midst of this desolate wood, though under good protection.
She watched him as he strode quickly away, and she could not help owning to herself that she could not have accompanied him any farther. without endangering both their lives. She stood there so long, looking out in the direction which her husband had taken, that; at last, Stefanitza was obliged to remind her of her own peril.
Helena then started to walk in the direction of the two mountain-tops which looked like two vast domes. The ascent was difficult, and although the air was laden with the perfume of wild flowers, the Princess, fond though she was of every kind of flower, never noticed them at all. At length, a feeling of utter exhaustion came over her, and standing still, and supporting herself against a tree, she pressed her hand to her heart and listened for a moment to the wild cries which came up from the valley.
"Stefanitza!" she said, "I want you to take a solemn oath."
"What does your Highness wish me to promise?"
"It is, more than a promise that I want. You must swear to me by all you hold sacred that you will not, let me fall into the hands of the infidels! I would rather have your sword plunged into my breast than the hand of a Mussulman on my shoulder."
Stefanitza met her earnest gaze without flinching.
"I had already thought of that!" he answered, simply.
"Then I am not afraid, come what may!" exclaimed Helena, with a sigh of relief.
Then, making a desperate effort, she started once more on the difficult journey up the mountain. Finally they reached the huge cavern which was their destination. "Saved!" murmured Helena, as she fell on her knees and prayed to Heaven for her husband, who was now being hunted like some wild animal, and who would have to continue his dangerous and difficult journey.
The Princess was astonished to find that she was so hungry, for she had imagined that she could live without food as long as her husband's life was in danger. Stefanitza was delighted to see the colour return to her cheeks, and when he brought her a large leaf full of wild strawberries, he felt rewarded for all his trouble by her smiles and thanks.
Fortunately, there was plenty of game to be found on these mountain summits where no human beings ever came. Once Stefanitza climbed to the extreme edge of the rock, but he was obliged to go along on all fours. From this point there was a magnificent view: Moldavia, Bukovina, and Siebenburgen all lay stretched out before him, while Mount Caliman could be seen in all its glory.
It was a magnificent panorama certainly, but Stefanitza paid little heed to the grandeur of it all. He shook his head sadly as he slipped down the rock again, for the vast plain was just as calm and peaceful-looking in the bright sunshine as though no such thing as war, with all its horrors, existed, and the immutable rocks in their stony tranquility did not tell him whether Petru Raresch had safely accomplished his dangerous enterprise: The Princess was naturally very sad and anxious, but by the second day she had begun to get accustomed to her new surroundings.
She covered the damp walls and the floor of the cavern with moss, and she washed her clothes in the streamlet and spread them to dry on the bushes. Then she arranged a little pantry in one of the corners of the cavern for their provisions, and dried wood for kindling a fire.
The want of bread was their greatest hardship, and, indeed, a, few ears of wheat would have been more precious to the fugitives than all the treasures in the world. Stefanitza decided to go down to the valley one day and bring back some wheat and salt, and also see if he could hear any news. He lighted the fire before starting, and advised the Princess, in case of any danger threatening her, not to take refuge in the cavern, but to go into the forest, or else climb up to the summit of the rock.
"Oh, I am not afraid of anything!" she cried, "and I would risk everything to have some news!"
When Stefanitza had gone, Helena set out into the wood to gather strawberries and other wild fruit, so that her faithful protector might be refreshed on his return.
Suddenly she heard some strange sounds, and in her terror she felt herself growing dizzy. Making a supreme effort she ventured to look round, and then, to her great consternation, she saw a huge bear. Like herself, he had come into the wood in search of food, and he had not yet caught sight of her.
Terrified though she was, she did not forget Stefanitza's advice, but turned and fled towards the summit of the rock. The long brambles kept catching on to her dress and holding her fast, so that she had to keep stopping to free herself. At length she got safely out of the wood, and not daring to turn her head, she started on her upward path. The great stones were scorching hot and burnt her hands as she clutched them. The rock she had to climb was slippery, and her dress impeded her progress.
Fear, however, lends strength, and she struggled courageously on, until at last she reached the top of the almost perpendicular rock.
When once there she remained kneeling, for she dared not stir; the terrible precipice below made her so giddy that she could not venture to stand up. She now looked down into the wood to see what the bear was doing.
First he went into the cavern and devoured all the provisions he found there, and then he roamed about for nearly an hour, and finally disappeared again within the cavern. Helena felt thankful that she had followed Stefanitza's advice; and not attempted to take refuge there. The time seemed to pass very slowly, and the sun shed its perpendicular rays on Helena, who was still kneeling and resting herself on her hands. She was nearly mad with thirst, and her eyes were burning most painfully. As she looked down on to the plain below her a new fear seized her.
When Stefanitza came back, how was she to warn him of the danger? And what was she to do if he did not come back? He had been such a long time a way!
Despair at last began to take the place of courage, and in her anguish of mind she would certainly have fallen from the rock, if her anxiety for her brave protector had not prompted her to hold on to the very last in hope of being able to warn him. An eagle was now describing circles around the peak of the rock, and with that exception there was the most intense stillness and silence all around. The sun was getting lower in the horizon, and the shadows of the trees were lengthening. Supposing he did not return before night-fall! Suddenly she saw a movement under the trees, and in another moment Stefanitza appeared holding in his hand a sheaf of corn.
Helena waved her handkerchief, but, alas! He did not look up. She shouted to him as loud as she could, but in vain; he continued his way tranquilly towards the cavern. He was just at the opening and was about to enter, when she saw him start back, throw down his sheaf, and draw his sword.
It was as though a mist came before Helena's eyes, but the next minute she saw the bear advance towards Stefanitza. The wild beast rose up on his hind legs with a furious growl, but the man stood his ground and thrust his sword into the bear's throat up to the hilt.
The next instant man and beast had fallen together to the ground. Wild with terror, Helena slipped down the rock and darted like a flash of lightning to the cavern. Stefanitza had disengaged himself from the bear's grip and had risen from the ground.
In spite of the pain he was suffering, he uttered an exclamation of joy as he saw the Princess standing before him.
He had feared that she was dead, for he had seen that the bear's mouth was covered with blood. At first he refused to own that he was hurt, but Helena was sure he was in pain, and insisted on .binding up his wounded arm.
"The Prince is safe and has reached Ciceu. He is getting an army together, and in a few days will be here for us," Stefanitza announced.
"Do you know what became of poor Toma, who gave up his horse to me?" Helena asked.
"He is dead," replied Stefanitza, quite calmly.
"Dead!" exclaimed the Princess, her eyes dilating with horror; "dead, and for my sake!"
Stefanitza muttered something which Helena could not catch; she only distinguished the word "happiness."
"But how did they take him, the Turks?"
"He let himself be taken purposely."
"But why—whatever for?"
"He made the Turks believe that he was the Prince, and they turned back, taking him with them as a prisoner. They had gone some distance when the idiotic peasants, who can never keep their tongues still, must needs let the Turks know that they were being deceived. They were naturally furious, and in their anger they tortured the poor fellow and put him to death."
Helena shuddered as she thought of the ghastly cruelty which her poor countryman had doubtless suffered at the hands of the enemy.
"Poor fellow!" she murmured, with tears in her eyes.
"What did it matter as long as your Highness was saved?" exclaimed Stefanitza, warmly.
The wound which he had treated as of no consequence proved to be very serious, and during the next few days he was feverish and even delirious. When he was unconscious he talked all the time of the Princess. She had a hard time of it, for, beside nursing her patient, she had to go out to get food. Fruit was not enough to sustain them, and at last, in desperation, she started out in search of game.
For another day or two they went on like this, and at last the feverishness left Stefanitza and he fell into a peaceful sleep. It was late in the afternoon, when he was roused by a piercing scream. He sprang up and looked for his weapons, but found nothing except his lance. He rushed out of the cavern, and there he saw the Princess defending herself with his sword against two Turks. Stefanitza forgot his weakness, and with one bound was at her side and ran his lance through the aggressor's body. The second Turk tried to make off, but he was caught and strangled with his own scarf.
"Are there any more on the way here?" asked Stefanitza.
The dying man only rolled his head from side to side. He either did not understand or he would not answer. Helena, her face as pale as death, was leaning against a rock, for now that the danger was over her strength had given way.
Stefanitza tried to drag the two corpses away, but he had forgotten how weak he was, and he was obliged to sit down on the ground while Helena fetched him some water with which to moisten his parched lips.
"What shall I do now?" she asked, simply.
He pointed to the dead bodies.
"Either they or us. We cannot stop here like this."
"Let us go away!" she exclaimed, eagerly.
He looked at her earnestly and sighed.
"But you could not walk," she continued; "you are far too weak to undertake the journey to Ciceu."
"Oh! yes, I can walk," he replied.
Helena collected the provisions together, and took up the bear's skin with which Stefanitza had covered her mossy couch. When night came on she threw it over the wounded man as he lay, weak and almost helpless, under a tree, and then, taking up his sword, she mounted guard. Stefanitza had received a fresh wound in his combat with the Turks, but he had not breathed a word of it to her, and she was horrified to see the blood flowing from it when he was asleep. She had nothing with which she could bind it up, so was obliged to staunch it with some large leaves. With bare feet and her long hair hanging down over her cloak, she watched sword in hand, by this man who had risked his life for her. By the light of the moon through the trees she could see how ghastly wan and pale his face looked, and in her despair she wondered if he were dying.
"Oh, what will become of her if I should die?" murmured the sick man; and then, turning his head restlessly from side to side he added, "If only I could have one lock of her hair to carry with me to my grave!"
Helena placed some more leaves which she had dipped in water on his forehead and on his wounds, and then, cutting a tress of her beautiful, fair hair from her head with the sword, she put it into his hands. His fingers closed tightly over it, and he went to sleep again, while she continued her lonely watch.
Suddenly it seemed to her that she heard me horses coming along the very road that she and Stefanitza had taken. She stood up, and, holding her breath, tried to still the beating of her heart, which seemed to prevent her hearing anything else.
Supposing that the two dead Turks had only been the forerunners of a whole troop of the enemy! She gazed at the cold, glittering sword in her hand, and her youth revolted against the horrible death which she had resolved to inflict on herself rather than demand this supreme service from her faithful attendant.
She listened. Yes, there was no mistake about it, horses were coming along the road, and she could even hear voices coming nearer and nearer. A cloud passed before the moon; when that had disappeared and she caught sight of the first Turk, she would thrust the sword through her heart. The sounds came nearer, but, thanks to the cloud, the horses had been reined in, and were coming more slowly. A silvery light edged the cloud now, and the rays of the moon appeared again
"Stefanitza, they are here—upon us!" cried the young Princess, in a tone of anguish. She had pointed the sword against her breast, but her hand trembled violently.
"Give me the sword!" he exclaimed, a look of agony in his eyes. He took it from her hands and stood right in front of her,pale and stern, like the Angel of Death.
"I will keep my word faithfully," he said, and the same sword shall release me afterwards."
The horses came nearer. Stefanitza lifted his arm, and Helena closed her eyes awaiting the supreme moment. Suddenly Stefanitza's arm fell and his face lighted up.
"They are Roumanians!" he exclaimed, then, raising his voice, he called out: "This way, this way, here is the Princess!"
A loud "Hurrah!" was the reply.
"This way, forward, your Highness!" was the shout that resounded through the dense wood, and in another minute the horsemen arrived on the spot, their horses neighing, and Helena fell fainting into her husband's arms.
Everyone gathered round her, giving what help they could. Stefanitza alone stood back leaning against a tree, and gazing earnestly at her sweet, pale face.
When she came to herself again, her first question was about her children.
"They are safe, and waiting for you, my poor darling," replied her husband, kissing her as he lifted her in his arms on to his own horse.
"And were you trying to walk like this?" he asked, as he caught sight of her poor, bare feet.
"I was on my way to you," said Helena, endeavouring to smile.
Stefanitza was then lifted on to a horse and a soldier walked at his side, for he was too weak to sit up unsupported. A blast was then blown on the horn, and when the whole troop was assembled, they all set out together through the silent woods.
Several weeks later a raft sheltered from the sun by a bower of leaves and flowers, and with flags flying, came down the Bistritza. The Princess Helena was seated in state under the leafy awning, and with her were her three little children. Stefanitza was there too. He was quite well again, but was strangely serious as he listened to the propositions of the Prince.
"Do stay with us," urged Petru Raresch; "you will be cared for and respected in our home as though you were one of our family."
"No, your Highness, do not ask me to do this. When there is a battle to be fought I shall always be at your side, but Court life is not in my way."
He was true to his word. Many were the fierce battles that were waged before the country was free from the Turks, and in each one Stefanitza was 'always in the thickest of the fight. It was as though he bore a charmed life, though, for indifferent as he ever was to danger, he- always came out unscathed, and, reckless as he was of his life, it was preserved for many long years.
At home he was very lonely and desolate, and day by day grew more and more grave and taciturn. He lived to be a very old man, and at his death it was found that he wore next his heart a long, silky tress of fair hair.
|*The spot where the beast fell is marked today by a huge rock called the Piatra Zimbulei, or the Auroch's stone.|