The Dancing Bear by Etienne Barsony
Fife and drum were heard from the big market-place. People went
running towards it. In a village the slightest unusual bustle
makes a riot. Everybody is curious to know the cause of the alarm,
and whether the wheels of the world are running out of their orbit.
In the middle of the great dusty market-place some stunted locust
trees were hanging their faint, dried foliage, and from far off one
could already see that underneath these miserable trees a tall,
handsome, young man and a huge, plump dark-brown, growling bear
were hugging each other.
Joco, the bear-leader, was giving a performance. His voice rang
like a bugle-horn, and, singing his melancholy songs, he from time
to time interrupted himself and hurrahed, whereupon the bear began
to spring and roar angrily. The two stamped their feet, holding
close together, like two tipsy comrades. But the iron-weighted
stick in the young man's hand made it evident that the gigantic
beast was quite capable of causing trouble, and was only restrained
from doing so because it had learnt from experience that the least
outbreak never failed to bring down vengeance upon its back. The
bear was a very powerful specimen from Bosnia, with thick brown fur
and a head as broad as a bull's. When he lifted himself up on his
hind legs he was half a head taller than Joco, his master.
The villagers stood round them with anxious delight, and animated
the bear with shouts of "Jump, Ibrahim! Hop, Ibrahim!" but nobody
ventured to go near. Joco was no stranger to these people. After
every harvest he visited the rich villages of Banat with his bear.
They knew that he was a native of the frontier of Slavonia, and
they were not particularly keen to know anything else about him. A
man who leads such a vagrant life does not stay long in any one
place, and has neither friends nor foes anywhere. They supposed
that he spent part of the year in Bosnia, perhaps the winter,
visiting, one after the other, the Servian monasteries. Now, in
midsummer, when he was least to be expected, they suddenly hear his
fife and drum.
Ibrahim, the big old bear, roused the whole village in less than a
quarter of an hour with his far-reaching growls. The dogs crouched
horror-struck, their hair standing on end, barking at him in fear
When Joco stopped at some street corner, or in the market-place,
and began to beat his rattling drum, the bear lifted himself with
heavy groans on his hind legs, and then the great play began, the
cruel amusement, the uncanny, fearful embracings which one could
never be sure would not end fatally. For Joco is not satisfied to
let Ibrahim jump and dance, but, whistling and singing, grasps the
wild beast's skin, and squeezes his paws; and so the two dance
together, the one roaring and groaning, the other singing with
monotonous voice a melancholy song.
The company of soldiers stationed in the village was just returning
from drill, and Captain Winter, Ritter von Wallishausen, turned in
curiosity his horse's head towards the crowd, and made a sign to
Lieutenant Vig to lead the men on. His fiery half-blood Graditz
horse snuffed the disgusting odor of the wild beast, and would go
The Captain called a hussar from the last line that passed him, and
confided the stubborn horse to his charge. Then he bent his steps
towards the swaying crowd. The villagers opened out a way for him,
and soon the Captain stood close behind the bear-leader. But
before he could fix his eyes on Ibrahim they were taken captive by
A few steps away from Joco a young girl sat upon the ground, gently
stroking a light-colored little bear. They were both so huddled up
together that the villagers scarcely noticed them, and the Captain
was therefore all the better able to observe the young woman, who
appeared to be withdrawing herself as much as possible from public
gaze. And really she seemed to be an admirable young creature.
She was slight of build, perhaps not yet fully developed, with the
early ripeness of the Eastern beauty expressed in face and figureó
a black cherry, at sight of which the mouth of such a gourmand as
the Ritter von Wallishausen would naturally water! Her fine face
seemed meant only to be the setting of her two black eyes. She
wore a shirt of coarse linen, a frock of many-colored material, and
a belt around her waist. Her beautifully formed bosoms covered
only by the shirt, rose and fell in goddesslike shamelessness. A
string of glass beads hung round her neck, and two long earrings
tapped her cheeks at every movement. She made no effort to hide
her bare feet, but now and then put back her untidy but beautiful
black hair from her forehead and eyes; for it was so thick that if
she did not do so she could not see.
The girl felt that the Captain's fiery gaze was meant for her and
not for the little bear. She became embarrassed, and instinctively
turned her head away. Just at this moment Joco turned round with
Ibrahim. The tall Servian peasant let the whistle fall from his
hand, and the wild dance came to an end. Ibrahim understood that
the performance was over, and, putting down his front paws on the
ground, licked, as he panted, the strong iron bars of his muzzle.
The Captain and Joco looked at each other. The powerful young
bear-leader was as pale as death. He trembled as if something
terrible had befallen him. Captain Winter looked at him
searchingly. Where, he asked himself, had he met this man?
The villagers did not understand what was going on, and began to
shout, "Zorka! Now, Zorka, it is your turn with Mariska." The
cries of the villagers brought Joco to himself, and with a motion
worthy of a player he roused the little bear to its feet. Then he
made signs to the girl. Being too excited to blow his whistle, he
started singing and beating the drum; but his voice trembled so
much that by and by he left off singing and let the girl go through
her performance alone.
Then the Captain saw something that wrought him up to ecstasy.
Zorka was singing a sad Bosnian song in her tender, crooning voice,
and dancing with graceful steps round the little bear, who, to tell
the truth, also danced more lightly than the heavy Ibrahim, and was
very amusing when he lifted his paw to his head as Hungarians do
when they are in high spirits and break forth in hurrahs.
Captain Winter, however, saw nothing but the fair maid, whose
pearly white teeth shone out from between her red lips. He felt he
would like to slip a silk ribbon round her waist, which swayed as
lightly as a reed waving to and fro in the wind, and lead her off
as if she were a beautiful colored butterfly.
Zorka grew tired of the sad, melancholy song, and began to dance
wildly and passionately. Perhaps her natural feminine vanity was
roused within her, and she wanted to show off at her best before
the handsome soldier. Her eyes sparkled; a flush spread from time
to time over her face; with her sweet voice she animated the little
bear, crying, "Mariska, Mariska, jump!" But after a while she
seemed to forget the growling little creature altogether, and went
on dancing a kind of graceful fandango of her own invention. As
she swayed, it seemed as if the motion and excitement caused every
fiber of her body to flash out a sort of electric glow. By the
time the girl flung herself, quite exhausted, in the dust at his
feet, Captain Winter was absolutely beside himself. Such a morsel
of heavenly daintiness did not often drop in his path now that he
was fasting in this purgatory of a village. His stay there had
been one long Lent, during which joys and pleasures had been rare
. . . . .
It began to grow dark. At the other end of the marketplace several
officers were on their way to supper at the village inn where they
always messed. The Captain turned to the man and woman in
possession of the bears and ordered them in no friendly tone to go
with him to the inn as his guests. Joco bowed humbly like a
culprit, and gloomily led on his comrade Ibrahim. Zorka, on the
contrary, looked gay as she walked along beside the light-colored
The Captain looked again and again at the bear-leader walking in
front of him. "Where have I seen this fellow before?" he kept
asking himself. His uncertainty did not last long. His face
brightened. "Oh, yes; I remember!" he inwardly exclaimed. Now he
felt sure that this black cherry of Bosnia, this girl with the
waist of a dragon-fly, was his.
The inn, once a gentleman's country-house, was built of stone. The
bears were lodged in a little room which used to serve the former
owner of the house as pantry, and were chained to the strong iron
lattice of the window. In one corner of this little room the
landlord ordered one of his servants to make a good bed of straw.
"The Captain will pay for it," he said.
When everything was ready in the little room, the Captain called
Joco and took him there. He knew that what he was going to do was
not chivalrous; but he had already worked himself up to a blaze of
excitement over the game he meant to play, and this fellow was too
stupid to understand what a hazardous piece of play it was. When
they were alone he stood erect before the bear-leader and looked
fixedly into his eyes.
"You are Joco Hics," he said; "two years ago you deserted from my
The strong, tall, young peasant began to tremble so that his knees
knocked together, but could not answer a single word. Fritz
Winter, Ritter von Wallishausen, whispered into Joco's ear, his
speech agitated and stuttering: "You have a woman with you," he
said, "who surely is not your wife. Set her free. I will buy her
from you for any price you ask. You can go away with your bears
and pluck yourself another such flower where you found this one."
Joco stood motionless for a while as if turned into stone. He did
not tremble any longer: the crisis was over. He had only been
frightened as long as he was uncertain whether or not he would be
instantly hanged if he were found out.
"In all Bosnia," he answered gloomily, "there was only one such
flower and that I stole."
Before a man who was willing to share his guilt, he dared
acknowledge his crime. In truth, this man was no better than
himself. He only wore finer clothes.
The Captain became impatient. "Are you going to give her up, or
not?" he asked. "I do not want to harm you; but I could put you in
prison and in chains, and what would become of your sweetheart
Joco answered proudly: "She would cry her eyes out for me;
otherwise she would not have run away from her rich father's house
for my sake."
Ah! thought the Captain, if it were only that! By degrees I could
win her to me.
But it was not advisable to make a fuss, whether for the sake of
his position or because of his wife, who lived in town.
"Joco, I tell you what," said the Captain, suddenly becoming calm.
"I am going away now for a short time. I shall be gone about an
hour. By that time everybody will be in bed. The officers who sup
with me, and the innkeeper and his servants, will all be sound
asleep. I give you this time to think it over. When I come back
you will either hold out your hand to be chained or to receive a
pile of gold in it. In the meantime I shall lock you in there,
because I know how very apt you are to disappear." He went out,
and turned the key twice in the lock. Joco was left alone.
When the hour had expired Captain Winter noisily opened the door.
His eyes sparkled from the strong wine he had taken during supper,
as well as from the exquisite expectation which made his blood
Joco stood smiling submissively before him. "I have thought it
over, sir," he said. "I will speak with the little Zorka about
Ritter Winter now forgot that he was speaking with a deserter, whom
it was his duty to arrest. He held out his hand joyfully to the
Bosnian peasant, and said encouragingly: "Go speak with her; but
make haste. Go instantly."
They crept together to the pantry where the girl slept near the
chained bears. Joco opened the door without making a sound, and
slipped in. It seemed to the Captain that he heard whispering
inside. These few moments seemed an eternity to him. At last the
bear-leader reappeared and, nodding to the Captain, said: "Sir, you
Captain Winter had undoubtedly taken too much wine. He staggered
as he entered the pantry, the door of which the bear-leader shut
and locked directly he had entered. He then listened with such an
expression on his face as belongs only to a born bandit. Almost
immediately a growling was heard, and directly afterwards some
terrible swearing and a fall. The growling grew stronger and
stronger. At last it ended in a wild roar. A desperate cry
disturbed the stillness of the night: "Help! help!"
In the yard and round about it the dogs woke up, and with terrible
yelping ran towards the pantry, where the roaring of the bear grew
ever wilder and more powerful. The rattling of the chain and the
cries of the girl mingled with Ibrahim's growling. The neighbors
began to wake up. Human voices, confused questionings, were heard.
The inn-keeper and his servants appeared on the scene in their
night clothes, but, hearing the terrible roaring, fled again into
security. The Captain's cries for help became weaker and weaker.
And now Joco took his iron stake, which he always kept by him,
opened the door, and at one bound was at the side of the wild
beast. His voice sounded again like thunder, and the iron stick
fell with a thud on the bear's back. Ibrahim had smelt blood.
Beneath his paws a man's mangled body was writhing. The beast
could hardly be made to let go his prey. In the light that came
through the small window, Joco soon found the chain from which not
long before he had freed Ibrahim, and with a swift turn he put the
muzzle over the beast's jaws. It was done in a twinkling. During
this time Zorka had been running up and down the empty yard, crying
in vain for help. Nobody had dared come near.
The following day Captain Fritz Winter, Ritter von Wallishausen,
was lying between burning wax candles upon his bier. Nobody could
be made responsible for the terrible accident. Why did he go to
the bears when he was not sober?
But that very day the siren of Bosnia danced her wild dance again
in the next village, and with her sweet, melodious voice urged the
light-colored little bear: "Mariska, jump, jump!"