Lara Biyuts (Larisa Biyuts)
“The most about my life in the old merry Nyomanland has been erased from my memory. Vanished in the dark,” such was the reply of Count Eric Stenbock — my friend who lived in England most of his life — to the request of the small circle of his guests, who adjourned to the drawing-room of his spacious apartment, after dinner, one rainy day in November, in London. Unlike most of his parties, this one could not be named totally informal, because Eric’s publishers were among his guests. At coffee, everyone felt like gossiping, but we shied off from all allusions to the upcoming trial of Oscar Wilde. We began story-telling.
“Could it be so?” I said with the intention to encourage him one way or another.
“Oscar…” he said in reply to me, ”…as an author you know that different periods of one’s life can mutually efface some impressions to each other, even brightest impressions, smoothing over things and features.” Both he and I were amateur writers, with me highly appreciating his book of verse Rue, Myrtle, and Cypress. “However…” Eric stopped short, with his big, hazy figure deepening into his chair, “…there is one story that used to be of interest to me, much, and it took place in Nyomanland.”
We asked him to tell the story that promised telling about the remote land.
He began by saying, “That year, on my way to Kolga, Estonia, I stayed at the town of Mitava, Nyomanland.” Glancing at the wall with a picture by one of the tremendous landscapes Julius von Klever, he said, “I was with someone there.”
“With your Little Count?” I said, meaning “le Petit Comte”, the doll that was at the table with us. Eric shocked his relatives calling the doll his son. If you wanted Eric to be nice to you, you should ask about his son’s health.
“True,” he said, “my son was with me, but le Petit Comte stayed in, when I went out for sightseeing. On my arrival at Mitava, I met one young man, who became my mate for my stay in Nyomanland. The young man was an Englishman who lived in the town and worked as a clerk. But he could leave his office for walks with me. It’s nice to encounter a compatriot while pilgrimizing. Reggie showed me the city, and the next day we went to countryside.
After three hours at the racetrack, in the sunshine of late June, we went to look for a pub, and we found it. It was delightful, in the shady tavern, after the hot sunshine. A few men. Like we, those were happy and unhappy betters who chattered and discussed the bookmakers’ odds.
A man, owner of a panama hat, said to his companion, owner of a gray hat, over a pint of beer, ‘By gosh! When I was going to back the horse, you said – do you remember what you said?’
‘Yes, unless nobody should back a horse like that one…’
‘But people got a lot of money for it!’
‘Actually, my choice was the right horse…’
‘Really? Right horse? This is what I’ll say, my dear… you wanted to visit me tomorrow, didn’t you? Right? You did?’
‘Well, suppose, yes I did – why?’
‘I won’t be home tomorrow. So sorry.’
‘You see… actually, I…’
‘Perhaps, you are going to come a day after tomorrow? Next week, maybe? In a month? I won’t be there, anyway.’ His companion rose and put his gray hat on. Panama Hat said, ‘Farewell!’
Gray Hat went to exit. Seeing my attention, Panama Hat said, ‘It was my first time.’
I invited him to our table.
Taking the seat, Panama Hat sank his thrum beard and said, ‘I’ll go to racetrack never again. No way, no how. To let them take my money! To depend on a horse! How silly! I hardly can understand why an educated man let himself downshift to the state when he is ready to be sitting and feverishly waiting till the moment when he is given 100 coins for his 10. The money which he never earned! No. A good book by a favorite author, a sophisticated theatre show, or a good talk with friends whose views are dear to you – that’s what must fill life of a man with cultured mind. Unless, I’ll go there on Friday, for the final time. They say that prizes will be great and there are some horses with a good winning chances. I must win back my loses, after all.’
As the men in tavern kept drinking, the noise level crept up a notch or two. Suddenly, a male voice of a singer was heard. It was an old man who could be something like a vagabond singer, a blind musician in company of his guide, a teenage boy.
Playing his psaltery, the Blind Musician began singing a ballad about a battle between the locals and the Knights in the vicinity of Mitava. The lyrics took my fancy.
The ballad was about a besieged castle. The defenders of Nyomanland withstood the siege, for a long time, but all food supplies were over, wells of the castle had dried up, and then the people offered to the Knights to meet at a battle on the bottom of the dry moat. Just listen: the dry moat! The siege was truly long and exhausting. The Knights agreed to the offer, and the two sides of warriors met. The battle was long, but the end was unfavourable to the defenders of Nyomanland. All of them were killed in the moat of the castle — a lot of the Knights fell along them. This is my translation of the ballad’s ending:
Centuries passed away, the walls fell.
Grass overgrew the gun slots,
cobwebs over the chambers in the towers.
The forest where there once was the courtyard.
A ploughman works where there once was the brook.
All desolated or changed.
Humans, their malice and rage, all sleep deep underground.
Quietude. Nothing reminds of the past –
only the flower,
Blood Flower alone tells about what happened here.
Giving both joy and sorrow.
Joy and sorrow.
The singer finished. For some measly amount of money, his guide went round the people.
When he approached us, I gave a coin and said that I wanted to talk with the Balladeer himself. Asking why and answered that I was interested in the lyrics, the boy permitted the talk, and I went to the old man who had a pint of beer in the shady corner.
‘Tell me, Balladeer, does the place exist? The place from your ballad.’
‘All what ballads tell about is true,’ he said.
‘May I see the place? Will you show the way?’
‘I’ll show it to you – why not – only I beg you, sirs, promise not to touch the Blood Flower when you see it! It bestows sorrow and misfortune sooner than joy.’ For some reason, he addressed to me by saying ‘sirs.’
Returning for my hat, I told my companions about my intention and asked, ‘Are you with me, my friends?’
Both Reggie and Panama Hat said that they were ready to go with me.
We promised not to touch the Blood Flower.
The hubbub of voices was heard from the tavern that we had left. It was late afternoon. The sunshine was not so scorching, and the nature seemed to free itself from the languor of the day. Bushes looked dusty and withering along the road. The golden fields of barley resembled a sea. The thin soft-green stripes of flax between the fields. Dry wheatears rustled in the wind. For walkers, the thick carpet of clover with purple and white pompons beckoned. The cows’ bells sounded melancholic. Grasshoppers and dragonflies sang; the lark’s merry notes were heard from the sky. The old man led us to the place of the legendary battle.
After having to walk for some more time we finally saw some remains of some ancient fortress. We approached the place and were immediately awestruck by a beautiful yet disturbing picture.
Underneath our feet, the broad eroded moat was covered with mentioned red flowers all over, with the prickly thick leaves hardly seen among the red petals. The moat seemed bloodstained.
The Balladeer said, ‘The flowers grow on the bones and blood. Nowhere else in our country you can find flowers like these. Every man who touches the flower is fated to misfortunes and misery. The reverse may be true, but it hardly ever happens. If the flower brings luck, the luck is for ever.’
The guide boy said, ‘If one cuts the flower’s leaf, a milky sap is trickling from it. Smelly and sticky.’
The three of us, tourists, went to walk among the flowers to see them. The Blind Musician stayed to take a rest sitting on a stone.
‘Whatever the old dotard tells,” Reggie said, “let’s have a flower, as a souvenir, and go home.’
We did it. Each of us slipped off a flower and concealed the flowers inside out hats. The guide boy seeing this, I gave him a coin in exchange for his silence.
‘If you, gentlemen, want to see the ruins…’ the guide boy said. Then we followed him, going up towards the fortress.
Climbing up the slope, we went to the ruins of the castle walls.
I was the first to reach the top of the height. Picturesque views around and underneath me. The deep moat, which I had left, seemed bloodstained yet more. On the other side of the hill, the endless panorama of fields spread up to the horizon. Gosh! It’s good to be alive, seeing the views! I enjoyed, when a cry made me look back.
Reggie tumbled into the moat, apparently stumbling upon something, and our guide cried seeing this.
A fall like this could not do much harm to the young man: the grass was tall and thick. I didn’t worry about him. Reggie rolled down to the bottom of the moat and remained lying motionless as a dark spot on the sanguine carpet.
‘Are you all right?’ I cried out, ‘Stand up! That’ll do. Stand up!’
But he was motionless. Then I quickly descended into the moat and dashed to him.
Despite my pushing to him, my mate didn’t move. Assuming that he fainted, I tried to revive him. Lame endeavour: he looked lifeless. More examination — and the trickle of blood from his left temple showed the terrible truth.
Reggie was dead. Tumbling down the slope he obviously hit his head against a stone. A big one. No other stones about. Blind chance. He lost his hat, and the fatal flower was nearby.
Panama Hat and I were too shocked to care about the flower. Seeing the crumpled flower, the guide boy said, ‘The flower killed your friend, sirs.’
Dumbstruck we stared in disbelief at the dead body of the young man who had been full of life just moments ago. We – Panama Hat and I – asked the guide boy to stay by my dead friend till people from the town came.
Panama Hat and I returned along with a doctor who confirmed the death. The death among the vehement reds.
Reggie’s death was a terrific event, but one’s young age is moody, and soon I forgot my young compatriot. Either it was a mere chance or the Blood Flower’ revenge – who knows? Panama Hat won a great deal of money in his next time at the racetrack, but I forgot to ask him about his flower — and I keep mine.” He went to a locker.
From a shelf Eric took out a glass box. “Here it is –”
The dry flower was in the box. The shrunken and cockled petals were gore coloured.
After all of us satisfied our curiosity, Eric said, “So, one of us, the Blood Flower keepers, has died; another one has won a fortune, and I… I spent a year in my family estate Kolga and then happily returned to London. Nothing special.” Before anybody of his listeners had time to say anything about his wonderful story, he approached the fireplace where his golden hair seemed ablaze and dreamy eyes turned white. “What is to happen to me in the future? Today it looks like a nice day to push luck. I’ll destroy the flower, right now. Tentatively. Just for learning.” With that he threw the flower to the fire.
On the instant, the dry flower was burnt down. By the fire, Eric could feel a slight whiff of the bittersweet aroma, if any, and we remained in the chairs.
Looking round the room, he sighed, looked round us and said, “Nothing special. Bosh!”
We agreed and sipped coffee.