Tanase Scatiu

excerpts The carriage was hardly making any progress along the muddy road. The field was oozing with water. Night was creeping down and the cold turned the clods numb and stiff, while the small pools of water around gained a thin crust of ice, which made it even more difficult for the carriage to go on. The horses were sweaty, banging the bells around their necks: the four young forerunners were used to bad weather and muddy roads as they had been born from a stud, in the country. They'd been through a lot since they were living in stables: tethers, snow, floods and especially Stoica's whip, the coachman; so if it hadn't been for the bridles, no hardships could have slowed them down. Indeed, Stoica was as drunk as a lord and he leaned against the bridles to maintain his balance. The carriage came to a halt. You could hear his master swearing at him at every stop: "You, damn drunkard, you fell asleep again!?… Hey, you!" And a dig in the rib would find its way to the coachman with every "hey, you!" but unfortunately with no result: the thick coat outside and the strong alcohol inside would protect him from his master's fists. Eventually, Tanase Scatiu lost his patience. He got off the carriage at the next stop, right in front of an inn. He was so furious that he could not put an end to his swearing. "Get off, you pig, get off. That's why I pay a coachman, for me to drive my own carriage…" Stoica would barely find his way down, muttering some words: "Pay me my money, 'cause I'll be gone from your service…" "I'll be damned, man, it's been twenty years since you've been leaving from my service! You can go to hell if that's what you want!" "How is that my fault if the horses are tired?" Stoica prepared himself to jump down from the box, right into the mud. His master grabbed him by the scruff of his neck: "What're ya doin'? You jump into the mud and then get on my carriage to smear mud all over the place?" "Yeah, what else?" "Go to hell, that's else. Can't you just jump from the dickey right into to carriage?" Stoica looked a little terrified at the sight of the stick coming out from the dickey. He realised how drunk he was and he felt no urge in taking that jump. While he was desperately trying to get down into the carriage, the horses moved slowly. Stoica tumbled down to the ground, in the mud. "Damn!" he found the time to say. Scatiu turned to him seized with fury. He cursed like hell everything he could remember. Suddenly, he whipped the horses, moved away, leaving the drunkard in the middle of the muddy road. He arrived in town when the night had already taken over the place. His mansion rose in the middle of a large yard. He had bought it from a wealthy landowner, Costache Merishescu, so it was a second hand, as everything Scatiu was in the habit of buying. He had changed the mansion's looks and renovated it and now he was the proud owner of the most beautiful houses in town. As soon as the bell rings reached the servants' ears, they all came out to meet and greet their master, as they would do every time he came back home. Yet, when they saw him alone, and there was no sign of the coachman, they refrained from addressing him a single word and silently started taking off the harnessing and emptying the carriage. Scatiu climbed the stairs, entered the house in his long fur coat that reached the ground, girdled with he pistol belt. Inside, his young daughter and her nanny were expecting him, but he barely noticed them, heading to the green house, then passing though the dining room and back, until he finally saw his wife: "Where is everybody in this house?" Tincutza hurried up to welcome him, but he outran her. "We're all here, you see. What happened to you?" "Stop nosing into my business. Where's Costea?" The valet had been following his steps from the moment he climbed the stairs of the house. "Don't just stand there! You've turned into a master yourself, haven't you? This house is full of masters. Everybody is a master, only I am a humble servant. Servants are meant to do the jobs around the house. I shall dispense myself from you, you fool!" The valet stood humble before him. "Help me take off my fur coat, you fool! Don't just stare at me as if you've never seen me before in your life." Costea unbuckled him, took his coat away and asked him: "The master cares for some jam?" "Bring me my shoes first, fool. Don't you know the ways around my house?" The wife approached him gently: "Tanase, perhaps you'd better go to your room. I made all the arrangements, don't take off your boots here." "Spare me your wisdom. Waste it on someone else, not me." The valet was still standing. "Boy, fetch me my shoes!" Tincutza gazed at him, in silence. Later, she took the small hand of her daughter, intending to leave the room. Scatiu called for the girl to come back: "Zoitza, stay here, my girl." But the girl wouldn't. Her mother asked her nicely then to stay and she stayed, but not wholeheartedly. "Don't you want to stay with your father?" he said in a kind voice. "No," she answered, on the verge of crying. "Then vanish from my sight!" The girl rushed to the door, barely refraining from crying, neither daring to go out, nor to stay. "Get lost! Don't you show yourself in my face again, you ugly kid!" The girl burst into a river of tears. Her mother was waiting for her at the door; she embraced her and they went away. The nanny was not to be found. "Stupid people!" said Scatiu. The girl's tears seemed to have cooled the air, as a blessed shower of rain. Tanase loosened up a little and asked the valet if he had been called for while he had been away. He rose to go to his room, saying that there was no room in there, only not to leave the impression he was following his wife's instructions. At the same time, Tincutza was caressing her daughter, overwhelming the child with tenderness and love, the love she longed for so intensely. They had been in each other's arms for about an hour when Scatiu made his entrance. "Is there any dinner tonight?" Tincutza was about to tell the child a story. She paused for a moment and said: "Ring the bell, please." She went on talking to her daughter. He leaned against the stove, seeking any window of opportunity to interfere with their conversation. He made himself a cigarette and asked the girl to fetch him the matches. The little girl gave him the matches and rushed to her mother's arms. "Phew!" he exclaimed. Tincutza looked at him as if she knew what she had been asked for, but still pondered if she should or should not carry on the request. She eventually decided to ask her husband: "What on Earth has happened to you?" "The damn coachman you gave me happened to me." "We gave you? You always say that he's been working for you for the last twenty years." "Sure, but it was your father who stuck him to me." "Of course, who else than my father?!" She stood up, heading to the door to avoid a new stormy conversation, when the valet came in, announcing dinner. It was on a Wednesday, during the Christmas fast. The soup vapors reached the ceiling lamp, filling the air with savor. Everyone in the family stood at the table, the Madame, the daughter, Tincutza and Tanase at the head of the table, guarded by Mr. Nae who sat on one side. Nae became a tender at Ciulnitza. Only one seat was empty. "Have you told granny about dinner, too?" Tincutza asked the valet. "Yes, Madame." Tanase drank the bulgy bottle of house brandy, enough to satisfy three men, at one gulp; he slammed it against the table, smacking his tongue. Then he caught two olives between his fingers and he threw them into his mouth. "Isn't mum gonna join us, Costea?" "She surely will in a minute, master. I've just talked to her." Tanase stood up, trying to leave the table, but meanwhile, old Madame Profira had made her way into the room. "Come on, old lady, hurry up. The young ones are impatient." Stout, fat and filthy, Madame Profira could hardly walk, her hair wrapped in a scarf, tied under her chin, her lips trembling, her eyes almost blind and white with oldness. She was moving slowly to her seat, and let herself fall on the chair like a dummy. "You might've waited for me… but no-one called me." The valet wouldn't dare to say a word; instead he shook his head in disapproval. This was an ordinary scene in the family, and Tincutza became sad every time because Tanase would sometimes leave the table three or even four times to go upstairs to take her to dinner. When Tincutza would go to invite her to join them, her husband made ironic remarks in his very personal way. "Don't bother ya…. You may lose your appetite." Now that the family was complete, Tanase gazed at everyone's plates to see who was fasting and who wasn't. He then sipped from his lentil soup and gave his bowl to the valet. "Take this to the cook! Tell her I'll make her choke on it. Is this what she calls lentil soup?" And then to the old lady: "Whatya're eating, mum?" The old woman didn't understand his words and projected stupid looks on everybody. "Whatya're eating? Is it enough for you?" She shook her shoulders and contorted her mouth as if in a smile. "God be praised, of course there's enuff! There's plenty of everything." "Fast dishes or not. 'Otel treatment," said Tanase. "If only we had plenty of rain." Every now and then Tincutza coughed nastily. Whenever her husband would address her, she would lower her eyes, looking down in her plate: she refrained with all her being from reacting in any way, so that she should avoid embarrassing situations when people were watching, especially the servants. Yet, her efforts were useless. "Boy, give me some linseed oiel, to make the pea porridge go down easier. They seemed to cook it last week…" "Tanase, don't eat linseed oiel again. It'll make you sick," Tincutza said. He glanced at her in anger, as if ready to punch her. She went on in calm tones: "There's no need for you to give me this look. They cooked the pea today especially for you." "I'm no pagan to eat meat on Wednesday, right on fasting days. This is how I have lived all my life and things were good for me. You're not gonna teach me otherwise now. Bring me the oiel, boy!" No one said anything any more. Only the sounds of forks hitting the plates, the tiny voice of the little girl speaking German with her nanny, Tincutza's cough and Tanase's spoon mashing the pea porridge. During the second course, Tanase noticed that Madame Profira gave up fasting. "What happened, old hag?" he addressed her smiling. The woman dropped her fork, scared. "Damn you, you scared the guts out of me…" "Eating meat, hah?" "Well, boy, what to do if Tincutza wants me to?" "Why don't you mind your business, man? I told her to eat meat because the doctor advised me to." These words pleased Tanase. The old hag never changed her ways: she was mean, drunkard, lazy, but since everyone has only one mother, he would spoil her in every possible way, and thus, any thoughtful act towards her was welcome. The old hag gave Tincutza a hard time, especially during her first marriage years, but a while ago she felt sorry for the woman because she was sick. The general atmosphere lightened up a little due to the old woman's remark. Finally, Tanase told the story of his journey back home, how he left the coachman in the mud, what a pest some servants could be, and flowing with the wings of his story, Tanase tasted some meat. Yet no one said anything, fearing his moody disposition. All his words were directed to Tincutza, about religion and money. Braggart and stingy, Tanase took pride in seeing his beautiful mansion, enjoyed his fame of rich man in town, but never felt at ease with wasting money on any of these. He had been a governor twice already under two terms of offices of the old government, and now he was reelected for the third time with the new one. Always on the right side, he talked to ministers as if they had been his friends; he was thou and thee with everybody in his imaginary conversation with influent people; he would often say how he advised "some" general to move the first regiment from Slobozia and the general humored him; he would often use words he could barely pronounce; he would mix the "state budget" with the "custom policy" and "the millions from the army's budget' and "state socialism" together in impossible sentences, very difficult to follow. The only thing one could grasp from his speech was that the country was an unbearable place to live in since the damn peasants had claimings that infringed upon noblemen's rights. He was considered a political tyrant inside his provincial circle, just as he was at home or in everyday life. When he addressed Nae Eftimiu, or some other tender, or a poor debtor, he never looked the man in his eyes, avoiding frontal contact; or he would go around his house, hands in pockets, repeating over and over again the phrase "you know" and actually saying nothing. This time he was on something really big: the minister of internal affairs was to spend his Christmas holidays in the county and he needed to find him a host. Every governor and senator in the county agreed to leave Scatiu to make the arrangements; they were free of expenses and assured the minister would be properly accommodated. Scatiu refused this task at first, but he eventually understood that no one could have better provided for the minister than himself. He would complain about the situation to anyone, and now it was Nae's turn to listen to him. "Some guverners and senators we have around here! I made, of course, a suggestion that everyone should pay a small amount of money to board the minister in a hotel. They totally rejected the idea of hotel accommodation. Let Mr. Alexander be the host then. No way, they said. Well… you see?" Nae Eftimiu nodded with a smile. "They'll give you medal…" "Right," Scatiu said, laughing. "You're so stupid, Nae! I can have any medal I desire, can't you see? I am interested in the voters' agreement here." "Will the minister be accompanied?" Tincutza asked. "You know there isn't enough room for us… " "He may take that Mihai with him." "Really?" "What is Mr. Mihai's duty?" Nae asked. "We appointed him Chief of the Internal Affairs' Office… Some sort of a writer…" Tincutza burst into laughter: "Don't waste your breath on us, Tanase. You did nothing for Mihai." "Right. I never did nothing for your relatives." "My relatives… Thank God I have none, otherwise you'd remind me of your so called favors every day." "You speak the truth. Few relatives, but heavy." "Of course. I hope you don't mean uncle Matei or my father. They are the only blood relatives I have left." "Your uncle Matei is quite a character around here. All you hear about in this house is her uncle Matei. As if he was emperor Porus. A fool and nothing more, just as everybody in your family." Tincutza stood still, gazing at him. She was flushed with anger. She opened her mouth to spit unbearable words into his face, but she refrained herself this time, too. Tears flooded her eyes and she took out the handkerchief to wipe them away. VII Two tables had been laid at Scatiu's mansion; one for the minister and for the upper crust in the large dinning room; another table was in the ground floor room, for the less important guests. Tanase's plans aimed high: he intended to throw a 50-person banquet in honor of the minister, serving only superior wines, recommended by Banica himself. But he met Tincutza's opposition who controlled everything from her own room. She knew only too well that every banquet they hosted ended up in a general drinking bout, with fiddlers and horrible fuss and she believed it would be better for everyone if they hadn't offered the minister this sorry sight. Tanase turned furious, cast curses everywhere, complained about his wife's selfishness, ignoring his popularity and his electors. Deep down, he felt she was right, but he wouldn't allow showing any trust in his wife's indications and, as the enfluential guverner that he was, Tanase decided to part his guests in two groups. It was unbecoming for him as a host to offend some of the guests by including them in the "rest of the people" group, but this was a practical idea. In fact, some of the police inspectors, electoral supervisors and merchants were indeed pleased to have their meal away from the official table, drinking "the holy water" rather than pretending to be someone else in front of the minister. A lumber room had been built between the upstairs dinning room and the downstairs hall and the military fanfare was seated right in the middle so that the music would be heard equally on both floors. The minister made his entrance looking a bit disturbed. Scatiu was not aware of his trip and thought this is how important people usually behave. The lunch went on well, in spite of the recurrent curses directed at Costea, in a low voice. The music was correct, the conductor dressed to the pins, facing the guests, looking straight in the eyes of the colonel. They messed the toast, yet still, everyone was holding positions. Some of the privileged longed for a seat at the downstairs table, where people felt good and had begun to drink right after the second course. No sooner had the minister finished lunch, that some of the official guests rushed to the other table. The colonel that didn't make good friends with water hurried up to sink into some wine, so good he could kill for it. They fed the soldiers later, too, closed the doors of the lumber-room and the noise was turned down a little. At midnight, the minister left the party, being tired by his journey. Everyone felt relieved. Still, when he lay down to sleep, the music exploded again. Indeed, all the doors were closed, but there was no stop to the trombone and piccolo sounds! And a musician blew a doina by his horn so passionately you might think that he put his entire life on the line. He played low notes or high pitches growing on and on, struck two high notes, all for an endless hour. The miserable minister tossed in hid bed, covered his eyes with the blanket, praying to God to cast sleep over him. When he thought sleep was around, the damn horn player would strike his high notes again and again, sending them as sharp, invisible arrows right into the ears of the minister. He would sit up then, saying in despair: "You, damn fool!" The noblemen went down to their peers and the drinking spree became unstoppable. Convinced that no sound could reach the minister's ears, they sang and shouted wildly. No one held himself back. The education inspector took his jacket off and facing the priest, they sang religious songs, hitting the table to keep the beat. "Hit the 7th note, father!" The priest's throat had gone sour and the man could barely produce any sound at all, a groan at his best, holding his head leaned against the inspector and pounding one of his nostrils for the rhythm. "Give me the 7th note, father!" "I lost my voice, son." "Then drink some holy water, you fool!" The priest would then have another glass of wine and joined the inspector in their song, covering the nostril with one finger. Everyone had his idiosyncrasies. The colonel sat next to the priest, his jacket unbuttoned, looking down at the fiddlers with foggy eyes, reaching out for the ceiling with his arms, as if defending himself from an unseen enemy. He lived thoroughly every note of the song, as if he had been overcome with grief; actually, he was dead drunk. Changing the song was more difficult than they ever expected; there weren't two opinions alike. The mayor, riding a chair, was laughing heartedly and tried to sweet talk the musicians: "Sir, Mr. Conductor, be so kind as to play my favorite song." Alexander requested Mascota. He went personally to the fiddlers, begging: "Mon cher, please, play that part from Mascota, where the turkeys go golu, golu, golu…" Panaitopolu protested immediately: "Give me a break with your song, my friend. Mr. Conductor, play that waltz by Ivanovici, ti-ra-ra-ri…" And he started humming the melody in a ragged voice, dried by the spirits he had drunk. The conductor was puzzled. Panaitopolu felt struck by an inspirational idea and called for the policeman who used to play the flute when he was young. "Nica! Nica!" And since the man could not hear he was called for, Panaitopolu started calling him names: "You, country bumpkin! You, ugly face! Hear me now?" Chickenpox had marked the policeman's face, and thus, it was partially covered by a pair of lame whiskers. He was thin and bony, but in spite of all this, he could have easily drunk the entire wine production of a vineyard and he would still have stayed sober. He sprung from his seat and came straight to Panaitopolu: "At your service, sir!" "Play Ivanovici's waltz on the flute!" He grabbed a flute from a soldier, and started blowing air into the instrument until his effort resulted in some music. He played some fine tunes that Panaitopolu accompanied in sore voice, ti-ra-ra-ri, waving his arm in the air, leaning backwards in his chair. Tanase suddenly jumped right in the middle of this musical group. He had stayed calm, whistling some song he wanted to remember. He snapped up the conductor and said: "Play this one!" He peaked his lips as in saying something, but he failed: "Damn! I could sing it a moment ago!" The conductor, wanting to humor the host, ordered the fanfare to play all the tunes they knew. The noise was so chaotic and loud that one couldn't hear one's own thoughts. "No, that's not it! That's not it!" Finally, with the forth attempt, they seemed to finally get it: "Yeah, that's the one, boys!" He then took off his elegant coat and boots, folded his arms around his hips and let himself go with the music… The others gathered around him, watching him kneading the floor beneath his feet, kicking the wood with his heels, bending his ankles in and out, kneeling, and jumping as if he were possessed. After 15 minutes of intense effort, he collapsed in a chair: "You see, gentlemen… This is our dance, not that valts that Alexandriu requested… Hah! 'golu, golu'? Are you on drugs or something?" Meanwhile, Stamate who was lying down as stiff as a log, took Tanase's shoes and stuffed them with meat. Others were dancing everywhere in the room. Some fell asleep in their chairs. A few merchants smelt that the party was almost over and stashed a few mandarins inside their pockets. The carriages transported everyone to their homes, all dead drunk, to Scatiu's satisfaction that considered it dishonorable for anyone to leave his house sober.