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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Arnold Weruméus Buning (1846–1933)

Romance on Shipboard

From “Naval Sketches”

SEATED on a tub turned upside down, close to the foremast, Jozef is reading aloud by the light of a lantern out of an “awfully fine” book.

The boy can read “first-rate”; and from each of the listeners seated round him he is to receive the sum of two cents.

The book which he now has before him, and which is covered with oil-stains, because he has to hold it so close to the lantern—the book which is so “awfully fine” is entitled “Count Matatskai; or, The Bandit with the Gray Beard: A Story of the Mountains.”

Count Matatskai is a youthful nobleman who has fallen in love with a mountain maiden, the beautiful but fierce Krimhelia, daughter of a chamois-hunter. After various meetings on the rocks by moonlight, with a faithful old servitor incognito in the background, Krimhelia makes up her mind to accept the count’s love, and fly with him to a distant country, where counts and the daughters of chamois-hunters stand precisely on the same social footing. But now a difficulty occurs, and it is this: Krimhelia has sworn an oath to avenge the death of her father, who has been killed in a fight with the band commanded by the gray-bearded brigand.

This is the point Jozef has reached in the story. Several of his audience have already dropped asleep, but the reader does not notice it; he is too much absorbed in his narrative, and continues in his “first-rate” manner, which, heard at a distance, reminds one of nothing so much as of the soft but continuous murmur of a babbling brook—commas and other stops being, in this method, so entirely left in the background, or else occurring in such remarkable places, that a reporter would have been forced to reproduce his text somewhat as follows:

“Krimhelia looked the count straight in the face.

“‘Look at me count’ said she ‘do you see this glittering dagger as sure as the moon, hangs yonder in heaven and illuminates my pale features so surely will I thrust this, dagger into the heart of the bandit, with the gray beard first and before I throw myself as your consort into your arms but why so pale count and why do you tremble so?’”

Here Jozef is interrupted by the master tailor, a thin little man, of whom it is commonly said on board that he knows a thing or two more than most people.

“Now, I know—” says he, in his piping voice.

“What d’ye know?” asks the boatswain, who has little or no opinion of the master tailor.

“As how the gentleman—the count, I mean—and the other—the bandit with the gray beard—that both of them are one and the same man.”

“Well, you calico-spoiler, you know that, do you? Well, I know that, too, and all of us know it right enough; but you needn’t take another man’s share in the reading, for all that.—Go ahead, boy!”

The master tailor is looked at with contempt from various quarters, and Jozef pursues his reading with a chapter describing how Count Matatskai comes home in a bad temper:

“The count threw himself down on a, couch adorned with costly velvet, ‘relieve me of my riding-boots’—thus he spoke to the gray-headed old servant Gabario who, brought him a silver goblet with sparkling wine saying, that this was his favorite wine from the great vineyard south of the castle but, the count made a gesture of refusal with his left hand and said ‘me liketh no wine Gabario avaunt and saddle—my horse!’”

This was the end of the chapter, and Jozef took breath.

“It’s a capital thing,” said the boatswain, “when a man can have the things for the ordering in that way. What comes next, Jozef?”

The boatswain is beginning to feel sleepy, and would therefore like Jozef to tell him the end at once; but this Jozef is by no means inclined to do; so he goes ahead valiantly, and by degrees, though he does not observe it, his whole audience drops asleep. At last, when he has reached the closing scene, there is no one to listen to it but the master tailor, who can scarcely keep his small gray eyes open.

“Just hear this, now!” says Jozef, who, though he has read the book through twice before, is as enthusiastic over this passage as at the first perusal. “Now you must listen! Now the count is sitting up alone in the rocks, in a cavern, they call it, and now he is the bandit with the gray beard; and the other robbers are sitting in the back of the cavern round a great big fire, and some of them are lying asleep, and the others are roasting great pieces of meat at the fire, and they’re drinking wine with it out of gold cups that they’ve stolen. But the bandit with the gray beard, he’s sitting all by himself, you see; and now Krimhelia comes in—you know, the young lady he thinks so much of.”

And Jozef resumes his reading: how Krimhelia approaches cautiously, with the glittering dagger; how the gray-bearded bandit, looking up, suddenly sees her standing behind him; how Krimhelia seizes him by the beard and drives the dagger into his heart; and how, at the same moment, the long gray beard comes off in her hand, and she looks with horror on the “pallid, dying countenance” of Count Matatskai.

Now follows a dialogue between the dying bandit chief and the “almost fainting” Krimhelia, who is “filled with consternation,” in the course of which the tailor finally closes his eyes unobserved.

Now comes the closing scene. The other robbers emerge from behind the fire; Krimhelia takes to flight, and climbs to the top of a steep dark rock on the edge of a “yawning abyss.”

As Jozef reads, he bends over his book, leans his head on his hands, and sees the whole thing taking place before his eyes. He sees Krimhelia standing on the top of the rock. The day is breaking in the east. The robbers are pursuing her, and begin to climb the rock.

Jozef reads on, at a passionately accelerated pace, and with the most singular stops imaginable:

“There she stood proudly—like a queen with her long, loose hair and her shining white face standing out sharply against the red sunrise-tinted sky with horror—she saw in the unfathomable depth at her feet the bandits approaching. Already the foremost was stretching out his hand to seize her and she saw, the morning light falling on his horrible features when suddenly, her ear was struck by a sound of men’s voices singing beneath her in the valley she listens, it is the morning song of her brothers, she lifts her hands skyward and looks up to the paling moon and the stars ‘Iccome!’ she cries” (all in one word) “and with a HOARSE shriek she flings herself down into the abyss at the same moment the bandit chief drew his last breath and the Count Matatskai was no more THE END.”

“That’s all,” said Jozef. “That’s fine, ain’t it? Oh, Lord! They’re all asleep!”