The Lucky Mill

excerptsVWhile all this was happening under the alder trees, three men were riding slowly down the hill, keeping close to the brook where they were hidden by the row of willows and osiers. The dogs, who'd felt them from a distance, had started towards them barking ever more frantically. "Damn those dogs," Lica said, stopping his horse. "There doesn't seem to be anyone at the inn and it's not that the road's very busy either, but unless we make a fuss of the dogs, he won't fear us anymore." So he got off the horse, moved forward towards the two dogs, and when they got close and wanted to jump on him, he crouched and started calling them with sweet words. The dogs stopped, confused, and began to back off, especially after the other two men got off their horses as well. Finally, they seemed to reckon they were dealing with peaceful people, who were just having a rest there, far from the yard they were guarding; so they slowly went back to the inn they'd come from, stopping now and then to bark. Lica stood up and called the dogs back to him; but whenever he wanted to go near them, they started barking. He thus spent more than half an hour with those two dogs who were used to drawing blood out of the pigs' ears; but he managed to stroke them eventually, with the satisfaction of somebody who'd proven his skills yet again. "Good dogs! But they've found their match," he said and stroked them again, getting closer and closer to the deserted inn. Ghitza had long forgotten that the dogs had barked once when Lica arrived at the inn, poked awake Lae, who was sleeping on a bench on the porch, and sent him to fetch his master. "Would it not be better if I went?" one of Lica's men said. "Let him come to us," Lica replied. Ghitza jumped to his feet when he heard that Lica had arrived at the inn and his face changed color, but he didn't hesitate long and started decidedly, and with throbbing veins, towards the inn. Ana remained dumbfounded for a moment and then took a quick step towards him. "Ghitza! Wait!" she said. "Before anything else, send Lae out, down by the osiers." She gave him a long, hard look. "So you don't understand me now that I've started understanding you!?" she asked softly. "I thought we'd agreed to send Lae ahead to wait for us there. Go, Lae," she continued; "go up the valley and keep behind the osiers till you get to the thicket and if you should meet the priest, tell him we'll be coming later because Lica the chief-swineherd and two other men have come by, and we need to be with them for a while; and could they please wait for us, and you wait too, do you hear me? – and don't forget to keep behind the osiers lest someone should see you." "All right," Lae said and started towards the brook through the alders. Ghitza finally understood his wife's thinking, he understood it and he didn't feel like leaving, he felt like saying: "Ana! You're wrong to think you have to fear Lica." But then he also felt like going up to her and thanking her for her cautious thoughts; but he could neither say nor do anything, he was afraid he might upset her, so he started towards the inn with a heavy heart, leaving her and the kids under the alder trees. When he was near the inn he glanced toward the brook and saw Lae running across the country lane to reach the row of osiers. 'Bloody fool, he's giving me away,' Ghitza thought worried. "You can tell I've beaten him today," he said out loud, looking at Lica. "I've sent him to fetch the fish caught in the net and look how quick he is. Welcome, God be with us!" "Great dogs," Lica answered, stroking one of the dogs and looking at Ana who could be seen coming from the alder trees with a child in her arms and holding the other by the hand. "They felt me when I was half an hour away and I had to waste loads of time to hush them." Ghitza caught Lica's drift and felt like kicking the dog that started to fawn over him. "I heard them bark," he answered, "but I knew it could only be the kind of people I welcome any time." "You must know one thing," Lica went on. "Dogs bark in a particular way at people and if you want to use them you must understand their language, because precisely when they should jump on you, they only bark once or twice. Otherwise, the place is wonderful: you can't miss anyone an hour's distance away. But let us go in," he added slowly, "I've got to have a word with you." "Even several," Ghitza answered, following him decisively inside. They sat facing each other for a while, both of them tense and knowing they'd met their match. "Here," Lica said eventually, taking out of the pocket of his wide girdle a wire with pieces of leather strung on it, "these are the marks of my herds. I mark them on the bottom of the right ear, a different mark for each herd, just like the patterns you see here on these bits of leather. If any pigs pass by here, have a look at their marks, take a good look at the man driving them, and keep quiet." Ghitza gave him a long look but did not answer. "We've understood each other, I should think," Lica added. "I should think not!" "How come?" "Well, you see," Ghitza said bluntly and sternly, "I look around and I can't see anyone, and I live here alone in this wilderness. I've got two wonderful dogs, as you said, but the three of you still managed to get here without my being warned. You could easily kill us all and nobody would ever know it was you who did it; you could easily take whatever you want from here and if we're wise, we'll never complain to anyone because you're always many and powerful and we're always few and weak. You told me what to do: could I possibly say no?!" "So we understood each other." "A deal by force is not possible. If you wanted me to do something for you, you should have come on the open road and not on the hidden path. I could tell you I'll do what you want me to and then not do it, just mind my own business." "That's my problem!" Lica said decidedly. "You either do as I tell you or I'll bring somebody else to the Lucky Mill." "Lica," the inn-keeper said, "don't think I'll stay here because I'm afraid of you. You'd better try to reach some kind of agreement with me." "I can think of no better understanding than this! A person can feel whatever he wants in his heart; all I want is for him to feel that he's going to get into trouble if he doesn't obey me." Ghitza came one step closer. "If it was only that, Lica," he said calmly, "I wouldn't have any problem. You are, after all, asking me to help you and I'd do it gladly if I really knew who you were and I didn't have to fear that tomorrow you'd ask for more. And then, you're never alone. If I please you, I'm also dealing with others." "That is your problem!" Lica shouted angrily. "Bring me the keys!" "What keys?" "All the keys: from the table's drawer, from the cupboard, from any trunk you have around," Lica said coldly. "Whoever takes over this place does it in order to make money; you've made money since you've been here, so I'm going to borrow some from you." Ghitza froze and just stood there for a few moments, staring at Lica. "I won't rob you," Lica added. "I'll just borrow and pay you back, with interest and interest on interest and all – needless to say, whenever I feel like it. There's no need to put this in writing either, it won't do you any good. If I live and my business goes well, I'll pay you back plenty; and if I die suddenly or my business doesn't go well, there won't be anything to have anyway." "Let me count it." "Why waste time counting?!" "Then just take it, however much you want, but you'd better leave some or my wife and mother-in-law will notice," Ghitza said pointing towards the drawer where the money and keys were. "Now you're talking!" Lica said. Ghitza would have gladly jumped on him to tear him apart but couldn't as the other two were close by and he'd have had to move too fast. He felt his blood drying in his veins when he saw Lica take the money he'd saved so carefully, but his hands were tied now and he had to control himself. "Yes, we've understood each other," he said coming closer, "and may I never see that money back if you have any trouble from me." Lica turned and grinned at him. "You're mild as a lamb now, aren't you?" Ghitza shuddered. He could take just about everything, but not mockery. Almost unaware, he took a step forward and grabbed Lica's arms, held him tight in front of him and said in a muffled voice: "Don't move or I'll kill you!" Feeling that Ghitza was the stronger, Lica looked anxiously towards the door and said quickly: "What do you want from me?!" "Nothing," said Ghitza, "nothing at all. You know only too well I have a wife and children and I can't do anything. You're taking my money: fine, help yourself! You've taken away my peace of mind and ruined my life: fine, I hope you enjoy it. But don't think you can keep me tied here and don't think it befits you to mock me. You can kill me, Lica, you and your people: I can take you to the gallows. So don't mess with me. Remember that thanks to you I don't have much to lose and make sure I don't lose the little I have left! You should be afraid of me!" Lica took one step back. "You are afraid," Ghitza went on, running both his hands through his hair upwardly. "You're afraid and you're not ashamed of calling for help from your people." "Of course I'm not," Lica answered smiling. "I'd be ashamed if I'd come to you without them." Ghitza had lost his self-control and that's why he now felt at a disadvantage in front of Lica, who could not be fazed by anything. "I want them to come in to see that you're afraid," Ghitza said. "Help, you there!" he then shouted and stood still in the middle of the house. One of the swineherds rushed in and the other one appeared on the threshold, where he stopped, looking into Lica's eyes. "He couldn't help picking on us," said Lica. "On the contrary, God forbid!" Ghitza answered. "I'm not stupid. I just want to show you that I'm not afraid of you." "But we are afraid of you," Lica said. "You yourself said that you wanted me to be afraid: I'm telling you now that I am, and I don't know if I'll ever have you in this tight a place as you are in right now. You must understand. No one has ever stood in my way without me getting rid of him." "I've no intention of standing in your way." "But you could, you could do what you haven't done so far because you didn't know what I was like. Go," Lica then said to Rautz, who was standing in the doorway, "tie the servant up, then bring the wife and kids in." Ghitza dashed forward, grabbed Rautz by the chest and pushed him towards the middle of the room, then closed the door and said choking with fear: "Leave my wife out of our business; I wouldn't mess with me if I were you. Lica, you're a smart fellow: don't put your head in jeopardy, don't make a fool of yourself. Be a robber, Lica, but not a stupid thief that gives himself away: ask me where my servant is and then talk to me." Lica looked at his mates confused. "You saw him running up the valley; he won't be back until after you've left, you know. I sent him to the priest in Fundureni to let him know I was talking to you." "That's right," Rautz said, as if shaken awake. "I haven't seen him since." Lica felt the ground slip from under his feet. "I'll never forget this as long as I live," he said harshly to Ghitza. "Don't bear grudges," Ghitza said coming closer to him, "but think that if you haven't got me today you'll never be able to get me. Lica, you must understand that people like me are dangerous servants, but precious friends." "Did I ever say I wanted to make you my servant?!" Lica asked, the expression on his face changing suddenly. "If you didn't and you don't mean to say it, then let's talk like friends," Ghitza said cheerfully. Let me bring some wine to and let's drink like people who can understand each other. I do have that much brain as to understand that I can't stay at the Lucky Mill without you on my side. But I don't want you to think that you can keep me here in fear, I want to make a deal with you. I'm ready to do as you want: but then you must understand as well that if I'm to be of any use to you, people must think that I'm an honest man and that I've fallen out with you." "That's true!" Lica said, "the people – yes; but we – how far are we to believe you?" "As far as you think you know me; let's see," the inn-keeper said, offering his hand. "Any wise man befriends the enemy he can't defeat." Lica took the hand. "Leave me the money," Ghitza went on half-heartedly. "I'm taking it with me," Lica said. "A bird in the hand…" "Just remember you won't keep me here because of it," Ghitza said and went to fetch some cool wine from the cellar. "That was my mistake," Lica said when he was alone with his mates. "I should have listened to you and kept the servant at the inn." "Don't worry, maybe it's better like this!" Rautz answered. "We'll see!" the other one said. "I'm afraid he's lying to us." "Leave that to me!" Lica said raising his head. VI As a man who spent his life on the road, Lica would often come to the Lucky Mill, once, twice, sometimes even more times a week. He would arrive there, get off his horse, have a glass of wine and something to eat, and then he would leave again. Only rarely would he stay longer; but especially on Sundays, he would come with two or three mates, and then he was in a very good mood. Ghitza was always glad when Lica came and because he was glad, the old woman was happy too, but Ana couldn't stand the sight of him. On that Sunday afternoon when Lica came to the inn unannounced, Ana had been troubled by heavy thoughts, which made her older somehow in just one hour and which would return every time she saw Lica. After Lica had left she'd asked Ghitza about what had happened, and he'd answered that it had been nothing, what could it have been?! – and that Lica was his man. That's why Ana had gone silent then and she'd kept silent ever since, and would only look stealthily at Lica every now and then, saying to herself: "He must be a bad and dangerous man." The days were going by, though, and as they passed, Ana was feeling more and more desolate. Since he'd become friends with Lica, Ghitza seemed to be keeping away from her, as if he was hiding something and was afraid to be alone with her. "Ghitza, what have you got to do with this man?" she asked one day after Lica had gone. "Me?!" he said a little scared. "What would I have? Nothing! What I have with all the travelers stopping by: he comes, talks, eats, drinks and pays." Ana looked long and hard into her husband's eyes. "But he usually pays more than he should," she said sternly. "That's what people who can afford it do." "Ghitza!" his wife said calmly. "Don't talk to me as if you were talking to a child. You are the man and you must know what you're doing. I'm just asking, I don't mean to pry; only you can decide if you've got something to tell me or not. Do as you wish; but I'm telling you, and it's with a heavy heart that I'm doing it, that Lica is a bad and dangerous man. You can see that in his eyes, in his grin, and especially in the look on his face when he chews his moustache. He's a fiery man, Ghitza, and it's not good to be too friendly with him." "But I'm not friendly at all!" the man said. "Fine!" his wife answered. "You do as you wish, but don't say I didn't tell you." Ghitza would have liked to talk, but it was difficult now that he'd said he had nothing to do with Lica. He just promised himself he'd talk to her another time. And, frankly speaking, what could he tell her? Everything that had happened was now as good as forgotten, so it might not be a good idea for Ana to know about it. It was true that Ghitza was constantly checking the pigs' ears, a few times he even found some of Lica's marks on them. But Lica came and went without asking anything, so all he had to do was remember and keep silent. Lica didn't put any questions, didn't tell him anything and didn't ask for anything from him. However, the chief-swineherd seemed to know everything that was going on at the Lucky Mill, which sometimes puzzled the inn-keeper. And his confusion only grew one day, when Lica sent him six pigs, of which four were not bearing any of the marks on the wire string. Ghitza hesitated a lot; but he eventually took them because he didn't want to defy Lica, and he still didn't say anything to Ana for fear she might insist he didn't take them. But from that moment on he really avoided her, and she tried very hard not to upset him. Thus the time came for the hoar-frost to cover everything and for the wind to shake the leaves of trees and thin the woods. Since autumn had come there were always travelers on the road, and not even on Sundays would the Lucky Mill be empty. It is in the autumn that the good fairs are kept; it is in the autumn that people might have something good to sell; it is in the autumn that merchants do good business. So Ghitza was doing better than over the summer, and he hardly had the odd hour for himself at the inn. And the closer St. Dumitru's day got, the busier and busier the road became. On this particular Monday, there were five carts at the Lucky Mill and seven people on the porch, when Lica arrived together with Broken Lip, Saila the cattleman and Rautz, the man he would only rarely part with these days. Lica never sat on the porch, nor did he sit in the inn as such, but in a nearby room, in which there was a smallish table, a few straw chairs and two beds for more important visitors, who would every now and then sleep the night there. Other than that, this room was where the innkeeper spent his days together with his wife and children, because the room where he slept was somewhere else, with access from the kitchen and with windows overlooking the hill, whereas here the windows were overlooking the road. So while sitting at the table he could watch, at the same time, the inn, the road, and the space in front of the inn. But on this particular occasion, Lica did not go straight into this room but stopped on the porch and started talking to the people there, asking each of them where they were from, where they were going and why. Eventually, he took Ghitza into a corner and said to him softly: "When is the Jew coming for his due on St. Dumitru's?" "The tenant farmer?" Ghitza answered, his voice getting softer and softer; "I thought I'd go round to his place myself." "Yes, the tenant. And don't go," Lica said. "Let him be, he'll come. I've got to have a word with him." "Fine! Should I let you know when he comes?" "No need to. I'll find out myself. I'll take care of that." Although they spoke quietly, and Lica in particular wanted to keep secret what they were talking about, he said the words 'Jew', 'tenant' and 'I'll take care of that' loud enough for the people on the porch to be able to hear them. So then he looked anxiously around him and added: "But let us go in." On coming in, Lica threw his whip on the table, as a sign that he wanted to be at his leisure. He'd had fights with Broken Lip and Saila the cattleman, and Rautz had patched things up between them, so he now wanted to have a drink with them. Lica didn't say another word about the tenant farmer. In a little while, three gypsies arrived at the inn, one with a violin, one with a clarinet and one with a dulcimer. Lica had them sit on the bench in the inn and ordered them to play. And because the gypsies were playing, the people had gathered in the door of the inn, and Ana and her mother and the children were listening as well, since it wouldn't be that often they'd have three gypsies at the Lucky Mill. Lica felt like dancing at some point and, dragging Broken Lip after him, he got out of the inn and started kneading the ground underneath so hard that his long hair was flying in the wind. But there's no point in dancing without a woman. Ever since he'd started coming to the Lucky Mill, he'd never exchanged more than ten words with Ana. But now he went over to her, grabbed her by the hands and said: "Come on, let me dance with you, so that you know you've once been danced with." Ana drew away. He took her in his arms. "But what if I don't feel like dancing," she said decidedly and slowly disentangled herself from his arms. "You'll feel like it once you're doing it!" "And more!" Broken Lip added, winking. "Well, I don't want to!" Ana said coldly and stepped back. Lica went away pretty upset. "Poor me!" Ghitza said as if jokingly. "What a moody wife I've got for myself! Go, dance, woman; it won't chip your beauty." Ana let go and started dancing. To begin with, it was clear that her heart wasn't in it; but what was she to do? After all, why not dance? Slowly she did let go. She got a bit excited when Lica came near her; her blood went all into her cheeks when he held her by her girdle to twist her round. But that's how she was now, there was no other way she could have been, and she fell into the rhythm of his bouncing hair. Finally, the spoiled girl she'd once been re-emerged, and Ghitza's blood started boiling when seeing her face ablaze with the pleasure of the dance. "Well, hope you enjoyed it!" Lica said in a while, tired. "I'll bear witness that you're much better than me at this." He then held her in his arms, lifted her from the ground, twirled her round once, kissed her and put her back on the bench. Ana pressed her cheeks with her palms to cool down their heat, then looked around dizzily, while Lica was walking to and fro wiping his sweat with the sleeve of his shirt. He then stopped and said: "What kind of a damned inn is this? Why don't you keep a servant?" The people near the door smiled meaningfully. Ana winced and got up all red in the face, while the old woman looked away, pretending not to understand Lica's words. 'Well, she thought for herself, that's life. No matter how good a man is, there's still a sin in him; however small, he still has it.' Ghitza didn't say another word, he just promised himself he'd remember this. Towards evening, Saila the cattleman and Broken Lip left for Ineu. After exchanging a few secretive signs with the chief swineherd, Rautz left as well, heading for the Fundureni forest. Lica stopped at the travelers and said, while looking towards the West where heavy clouds could be seen gathering on the sky: "It seems that the weather's changing. I think I'll stay here overnight. I've got money on me, and these places can be dangerous, especially in the autumn." So he spent the night at the Lucky Mill. Although the background of The Lucky Mill by Ioan Slavici (1848-1925) is Transylvanian, and the heroes tend pigs instead of cattle, a Western-like atmosphere hovers throughout the novel – a tense story of greed, illicit love, vengeance, and manly confrontation, where the distinction between the villains and the good guys is an often crossed fine line, and the gloomy end is catastrophic for everyone.

by Ioan Slavici (1848-1925)