End Of Century In Bucharest

excerpts In the large house of the Barbus, in the Mogoşoaia Bridge Street, the main staircase was guarded by two bronze moors, carrying huge, crystal lamps. Upstairs, you climbed to the boyar's dwelling. Under the first steps, however, a narrow door opened toward the low rooms of a floor where Urmatecu had settled the administration offices. Those were cold, dark rooms, with long desks and heaps of files of all sizes. On shelves, there were glass jars filled with corn, rapeseed, barley, and oat. Heavy logs, thrown in corners, showed the essence of woods in the boyar's forests. On the smoothly cut surfaced, you could read the ages of beech trees and oaks in the rings. Beehive models were everywhere near tables, and, on every wall, photographs made by Boyar Barbu at all of his breeding farms were hanged. The horse herds of Urlaţi showed restless stallions, on thin legs, with long heads and frightened eyes, having stars on their foreheads. And in all photos with horses, Boyar Ştefan was on horseback, one hand akimbo, the other on the saddle. There were also breeding bulls, with strong necks and long horns; sows lying on one side, and nursing nine piglets; heavy rams, their eyes blinded by wool curls; shepherd dogs and greyhounds; flocks of poultry, with swelling turkeys and fat geese, almost crawling, and there were even giant raisins with dew, all speaking of the baron's wealth. A smell of wheat, dry wood, and burning mold floated in the rooms. Three large safes opened with great difficulty, in the bony hand of a thin man, with a flattened head, goggled eyes, and a gray, dense mustache, torn by two front teeth, which made him look scary. In fact, he was a meek, fearful man. This was Serian, the cashier, hired by Urmatec to say no and not give any money, not even to the boyar, without a written notice, without recording it in a file, and without his knowledge. Every time he worked on the safes, either to take or to give, the cashier drew a line with his thumb nail along the money stacks, to feel the milled edges, and make sure no coin was out of line. And he did that with silver coins, too, and with copper coins. He did not have any gold, because Urmatescu kept it locked. Serian was famous for his honesty. And this honesty was not only a hidden asset of his character, it also had a face that did what his thoughts said – the thoughts he never listened to. He wore them all, in the pride of his profession. This is why the best scent for him was the one in the morning, when he opened the safes and smelled their stench of wet paint and greased steel. Then, he unloaded his mind of what he had put there the previous evening, and which he had borne, according to an old custom, to keep it unchanged and unforgotten: the number of paper money and coins, when he shut the baron's safes the previous evening. (…)Fall had come back, but this time without any sadness to her. The beautiful days of Bucharest – the more they lingered on, the more joy they brought. She knew from now on shops would fill up with rich goods for the winter; she hoped that in the clear and still warm evenings she would be able to have dinner in gardens, and she had heard that now, when late hours demanded a velvet cloak and ribbons on cold shoulders, there were places in Bucharest where there was music, and men and women, wearing beautiful clothes, went up on stage, singing. She imagined herself in a dining hall, with Bubi's friends. (…)The ball Jurubiţa was so keen on going to was one of the numberless masked balls organized by ladies' charitable foundations of the Bucharest aristocracy. The best society people came, because the entrance was very expensive, and the ball was held at the National Theater. The hall was united to the stage, forming an extremely deep room. Expensive carpets were hung at all boxes, and some of them were stuffed like caves, with soft velvet and silks. And a fantastic market was improvised in each of them. There was a rich stand of jokes with many meanings, printed on white or waxy Indian satin, sold by Vasile Alecsandri's Ovid, then there was Hamlet's dark cell, where Shakespeare's hero handed over cigarettes from a china skull. The boyars came in taking lazy steps, deliberately gliding and gutsy, with an impudence and posture they only assumed for such balls. The tailcoat was worn with a black tie, and during the ball and in the smoking parlor, they did not take off their top heads, and did not let go of their gold-hand sticks. An old tradition, which had remained, the knowledgeable said, from the time of feather cocked heads, in the midst of this world hiding behind masks, where honor and tribute did not have to be paid to any unknown man, and it was not mandatory to be polite to anybody. So defended, the gentlemen were happy to say what they believed or felt to certain ladies they easily recognized, and the ladies were happy to listen to many impolite things from known and unknown gentlemen. It was some kind of an unwritten law of masked balls, which the aristocracy abode by with greater pleasure than the rest. (…)Indeed, something had happened and nobody knew that yet. The next day after his arrival, Bubi started out, one warm summer morning, to go for the Bucharest he had missed. From their house, on the waterfront end of the Mogoşoaia Bridge Street, he turned toward the DâmboviţaRiver banks, where wagons that had arrived the previous night had stopped. Some kind of a fair was stretched out in the street, among scattered straws, bringing in a village scent, where baskets with light, limpid eggs, buckets made of still wet and green fir-tree branches and roughly, jazzy-woven blankets lay in front of the traveler's feet, like a market that had no room in the Great Market, where Bubi was headed now. On his right and left there was nothing but goods; they filled up the Oltenians' baskets, and then the Oltenians started out in the streets, shouting their deals, splashing barefoot on the street stones. Everything was there: heaps of yellow-flowered pumpkins; woody, brick-like carrots; earth-smelling potatoes; fat cabbages, embroidered with dew; glassy cherries; carps with their bellies full of eggs, smelling of scale and with red circles around their round eyes; earthy lines smelling of lakes; small fish for soup; and, under the baskets, chickens jumped up and down, smelling of feathers and dust.Bubi stepped slowly through this flow of wealth, which, although stretched out on city stones and guarded by the police, suddenly showed the fullness of the earth – something impossible to see in Vienna, which he had just left, or anywhere else. There, all this beauty is lost and hidden somewhere, Bubi thought. His fast, sparkling spirit, drunk with the overflowing street, with the summer, and a muddy throbbing, thought it had found its way on some paths dried of ideas and dogmas learned from others – foreign colleagues, in restless meetings in café corners and small restaurants in less high-brow neighborhoods of Vienna – was only now getting new strength and connections.It happened to Bubi exactly the opposite of what usually happened to people who came back home. The places he returned to seemed to him more beautiful than they used to be when he left! This is why the merchant heart of Bucharest, going to St. George, made him equally happy. The small, dark shop eyes, with a gas bulb burning inside even during the day and with tasteless shelves made his smile, remembering Vienna, but he liked them. Walking and going back to old places, he felt he was going to work hard, and he wanted to start right away. His mind made him restless, and it pushed him. He mingled the dreams he had brought with these places, which lacked brilliance, but which were powerful. He was fond of the people teeming in the narrow streets, of their open faces, ready anytime to chat and waste time. He saw most of them were tranquil this early, sunny, wealthy summer day, when little was needed to live on. Still, Bubi would have liked to sacrifice for them. He needed to do that. Somewhere – he could not tell exactly where – in their lives, he suspected they were unhappy. And he would have loved to run to that place, to help! The grandson of Dumitrache Barbu, a progressive boyar of his time, with generous ideas, Bubi had friends in painting studios or music parlors, young people who connected, according to the time's customs, the artistic ideal to a humanitarian one. Without having ever lived like that, Bubi often found himself wishing he lived in poverty and predicament, which was nothing but a fantasy of a spoiled young boyar. And, in his imagination, in his decay, he saw himself with fatigued comrades in a cold room in the evening, each bringing something, then talking until late at night about plans for the future, and nothing else. He felt that was the only way to really achieve something grand. And the thought of the happiness he caught a glimpse of and which he bore within himself could be achieved now.On his way, the Old Men's Road got narrower and more twisted. After a clearing, when it crossed the boulevard, the street cleared up, because of the lack of shops. Yards began, they were not aristocratic, but they were tranquil and large, with houses like Urmatescu's: erected from the soil, with a stone entrance and fat iron bars at the underground windows. In Bucharest, when some people got rich quick, their houses scattered along the city, from the Old Men to Cotroceni, and from Voivode Radu to the Highway. They were smaller than those that belonged to boyars, and the yards showed they were new. The trees were young, they had no linden trees or poplar trees yet. Not old ones, rocking in all seasons near gates, for a hundred years. Apart form the yards, streets stretched and got fulfilled with more modest houses, with long yards, with two eyes to the road (small windows, so low that in winter you could touch the snow), wrapped in iron sheets, glittering under the moon; in the fall, when trees were emptied, they got covered with heaps of copper. One next to the other, the houses and the yards stretched all over the city.The Olari Church suddenly appeared in Bubi's way. Well placed at the crossroads, with much room around it for people to be able to walk around the church on Good Friday, its darkness was closed away from the strong summer sun. From the door, the multitude of lit candles looked like a sign of wealth, rather than faith, in the waters of the golden icons. Bubi went in, and he stayed humbly on the threshold. Neither his long traveling, nor the new teaching had been able to harm his soul. Now he thanked for his return, in front of his icon, which he could see far away from the altar, reddened with lights.(1944)

by Ion Marin Sadoveanu (1893-1964)