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Our Little Hungarian Cousin
WITH THE TZIGANES
Banda Bela, the little Gypsy boy, had tramped all day through the hills, until, footsore, weary, and discouraged, he was ready to throw himself down to sleep. He was very hungry, too.
"I shall go to the next hilltop and perhaps there is a road, and some passerby will throw me a crust. If not, I can feed upon my music and sleep," he thought to himself, as he clambered through the bushes to the top of the hill. There he stood, his old violin held tight in his scrawny hand, his ragged little figure silhouetted against the sky.
Through the central part of Hungary flows in rippling beauty the great river of the Danube. Near to Kecskés the river makes a sudden bend, the hills grow sharper in outline, while to the south and west sweep the great grass plains.
Before Banda Bela, like a soft green sea, the Magyar plain stretched away until it joined the horizon in a dim line. Its green seas of grain were cut only by the tall poplar trees which stood like sentinels against the sky. Beside these was pitched a Gypsy camp, its few tents and huts huddled together, looking dreary and forlorn in the dim twilight. The little hovels were built of bricks and stones and a bit of thatch, carelessly built to remain only until the wander spirit rose again in their breasts and the Gypsies went forth to roam the green velvet plain, or float down the Danube in their battered old boats, lazily happy in the sun.
In front of the largest hut was the fire-pot, slung from a pole over a fire of sticks burning brightly. The Gypsies were gathered about the fire for their evening meal, and the scent of goulash came from the kettle. Banda Bela could hardly stand from faintness, but he raised his violin to his wizened chin and struck a long chord. As the fine tone of the old violin smote the night air, the Gypsies ceased talking and looked up. Unconscious of their scrutiny, the boy played a czardas, weird and strange. At first there was a cool, sad strain like the night song of some bird, full of the gentle sadness of those without a home, without friends, yet not without kindness; then the time changed, grew quicker and quicker until it seemed as if the old violin danced itself, so full of wild Gypsy melody were its strains. Fuller and fuller they rose; the bow in the boy's fingers seeming to skim like a bird over the strings. The music, full of wild longing, swelled until its voice rose like the wild scream of some forest creature, then crashed to a full stop. The violin dropped to the boy's side, his eyes closed, and he fell heavily to the ground.
When Banda Bela opened his eyes he found himself lying upon the ground beside the Gypsy fire, his head upon a bundle of rags. The first thing his eyes fell upon was a little girl about six years old, who was trying to put into his mouth a bit of bread soaked in gravy. The child was dressed only in a calico frock, her head was uncovered, her hair, not straight and black like that of the other children who swarmed about, but light as corn silk, hung loosely about her face. Her skin was as dark as sun and wind make the Tziganes, but the eyes which looked into his with a gentle pity were large and deep and blue.
"Who are you?" he asked, half conscious.
"Marushka," she answered simply. "What is your name?"
"Banda Bela," he said faintly.
"Why do you play like the summer rain on the tent?" she demanded.
"Because the rain is from heaven on all the Tziganes, and it is good, whether one lies snug within the tent or lifts the face to the drops upon the heath."
"I like you, Banda Bela," said little Marushka. "Stay with us!"
"That is as your mother wills," said Banda Bela, sitting up.
"I have no mother, though her picture I wear always upon my breast," she said. "But I will ask old Jarnik, for all he says the others do," and she sped away to an old Gypsy, whose gray hair hung in matted locks upon his shoulders. In a moment she was back again, skimming like a bird across the grass.
"Searched through Banda Bela with a keen glance."
"I am glad to eat, but I speak truth," said Banda Bela calmly.
He ate from the fire-pot hungrily, dipping the crust she gave him into the stew and scooping up bits of meat and beans.
"I am filled," he said at length. "I will speak with Jarnik."
Marushka danced across the grass in front of him like a little will-o'-the-wisp, her fair locks floating in the breeze, in the half light her eyes shining like the stars which already twinkled in the Hungarian sky.
The Gypsy dogs bayed at the moon, hanging like a crescent over the crest of the hill and silvering all with its calm radiance. Millions of fireflies flitted over the plain, and the scent of the ripened grain was fresh upon the wind.
Banda Bela sniffed the rich, earthy smell, the kiss of the wind was kind upon his brow; he was fed and warm.
"Life is sweet," he murmured. "In the Gypsy camp is brother kindness. If they will have me, I will stay."
Old Jarnik had eyes like needles. They searched through Banda Bela with a keen glance and seemed to pierce his heart.
"The Gypsy camp has welcome for the stranger," he said at length. "Will you stay?"
"You ask me nothing," said Banda Bela, half surprised, half fearing, yet raising brave eyes to the stern old face.
"I have nothing to ask," said old Jarnik. "All I wish to know you have told me."
"But I have said nothing," said Banda Bela.
"Your face to me lies open as the summer sky. Its lines I scan. They tell me of hunger, of weariness and loneliness, things of the wild. Nothing is there of the city's evil. You may stay with us and know hunger no longer. This one has asked for you," and the old man laid his hand tenderly upon little Marushka's head. "You are hers, your only care to see that no harm comes to these lint locks. The child is dear to me. Will you stay?"
"I will stay," said Banda Bela, "and I will care for the child as for my sister. But first I will speak, since I have nothing to keep locked."
"Speak, then," said the old man. Though his face was stern, almost fierce, there was a gentle dignity about him and the boy's heart warmed to him.
"Of myself I will tell you all I know," he said. "I am Banda Bela, son of Šafařik, dead with my mother. When the camp fell with the great red sickness1 I alone escaped. Then was I ten years old. Now I am fourteen. Since then I have wandered, playing for a crust, eating seldom, sleeping beneath the stars, my clothes the gift of passing kindness. Only my violin I kept safe, for my father had said it held always life within its strings. 'Not only food, boy,' he said, 'but joy and comfort and thoughts of things which count for more than bread.' So I lived with it, my only friend. Now I have two more, you — " he flashed a swift glance at the old man, "and this little one. I will serve you well."
"You are welcome," said old Jarnik, simply. "Now, go to sleep."
Little Marushka, who had been listening to all that had been said, slipped her hand in his and led him away to the boys' tent. She did not walk, but holding one foot in her hand, she hopped along like a gay little bird, chattering merrily.
"I like you, Banda Bela, you shall stay."