Already in the neighborhood of St. Andras this slimy ooze was noticeable when the troop of demons galloped over the plantain-covered flats which here and there bent under the weight of the horsemen. As they proceeded, the enormous numbers of frogs became surprising, as if this host of amphibia had leagued against the invading demons. Then flocks of water-fowl, with clamorous cries and rustling wings, rose here and there, startled from their quiet nests by the approaching inundation, which by this time had completely hidden what was called in that region the public road. De Fervlans, at a loss what to make of this singular freak of nature, sent a horseman to the right, and one to the left, to examine the ground, and learn whence came the sea of slime, and how it might be avoided. Each of his messengers returned with the information that the slime was flowing in the direction he had ridden. The source, then, must be near where they had halted.
“This is bad,” said De Fervlans, impatiently. “This eruption of mud will hinder our progress. We can’t run a race with it. We must look up another route, and this will delay us perhaps for hours. But we can make that up when on a hard road again.”
De Fervlans, who was familiar with the neighborhood, now led his troop in the direction of the path which ran through the morass toward the village of Banfalva, hoping thus to gain the excellent highway of Eszterhaza. Here and there from the swamp rose slight elevations of dry earth which were overgrown with alders and willows. On one of these “hills” De Fervlans concluded to halt for a rest, as both men and horses were weary with the toilsome journey over the wretched roads.
Very soon enough dry wood was collected for a fire. There was no need to fear that the light might attract attention; the camp was far enough from human habitation, and neither man nor beast ever spent the night in the morass of the Hansag. Besides, they could have seen, from the top of a tree, if any one were approaching. They could see in the bright moonlight the long poplar avenue which led to Eszterhaza; and even a gilded steeple might be seen gleaming in the Hungarian Versailles, which was perhaps a two hours’ ride distant.
Suddenly the sharp call, “Qui vive?” was heard. It was answered by a sort of grunt, half-brute, half-human. Again the challenging call broke the silence, and was followed in a few seconds by a gunshot. Then a wild laugh was heard at some distance from the hill. De Fervlans hurried toward the guard.
“What was it?” he asked.
“I don’t know whether it was a wild beast or a devil in human form,” was the reply. “It was a strange-looking monster with a large head and pointed ears.”
“I ’ll wager it is my runaway fish-boy!” exclaimed the marquis.
“When I challenged the creature he stood up on his feet, and barked, or grunted, or whatever you might call it; and when I called out the second time he seemed to strike fire with something; at any rate, he did not act in the proper manner, so I fired at him. But I did n’t hit him.”