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Nineteen-year-old Stephan Varda flees his father's wrath over the death of his beloved brother in unstable 1880s Hungary. It doesn't take long for Miklos Varda to regret losing yet another son, but it's already too late to find Stephan. Strong-tempered Miklos learns one bitter lesson after another until he becomes homeless himself at the same time Stephan is
Nineteen-year-old Stephan Varda flees his father's wrath over the death of his beloved brother in unstable 1880s Hungary. It doesn't take long for Miklos Varda to regret losing yet another son, but it's already too late to find Stephan. Strong-tempered Miklos learns one bitter lesson after another until he becomes homeless himself at the same time Stephan is learning about the mercy of Jesus Christ from a beautiful, devout young Hungarian-American. Intricately coordinated events lead both Stephan and Miklos to America and to a pivotal decision: whether or not to accept God's undying love.
Zofia’s body shivered a little, both from the view of the ghostly trees, dripping with moss, in the oak grove near the docks, and the sharp bite of the breeze.
The voices of the passengers on the docks and those who stood with them saying their good-byes were a steady thrum when suddenly two sharp male voices pierced it harshly.
“It was a fair duel, Grasile. Now, get off my back!”
“You killed my brother, Veaubien, and I’m going to have my revenge!”
Every eye within earshot of the two men was turned toward them. They were on the back edge of the docks, near the misty oak grove.
“You know where the road is, Philip,” said Veaubien. “Get on it before you get hurt. I have no desire to shoot it out with you.”
Philip Grasile, who was stocky and a bit shorter than the slender Veaubien, took a step closer. “I’m challenging you, mister! Right in front of all these people. Duel me, or be counted a yellow-bellied coward!”
On the riverboat, Zophia Hardik gripped her husband’s arm as Veaubien snapped, “You’ve got your duel, pal!” The two men walked swiftly off the docks into the oak grove, each pulling a pistol from inside his coat, and vanished from sight. A few people followed and were swallowed by the mists.
Sigmund looked at Zofia, shaking his head. “I’ve heard how men in this country settle disputes with duels, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen one about to happen.”
Other people on the docks were hurrying into the grove to observe the duel.
Zofia buried her face against her husband’s shoulder. “Oh, how awful!”
Suddenly, two shots rang out, almost as one. Zofia jerked at the sound of the shots, burrowing her face farther into Sigmund’s shoulder.
He squeezed her hard.
She eased back in his arms, raised her head, and looked toward the spot where Veaubien and Grasile had gone into the grove. “Oh, Sigmund,” she said, “what a barbaric way to settle a dispute. Does someone have to die? Can’t they discuss it reasonably?”
Sigmund’s line of sight was fixed in that direction, also. Then looking down at her, he said, “Apparently it is not in them to discuss it reasonably, dear.”
She met his gaze with troubled eyes. “No man is an island. Think of the people connected with these two men who will suffer because of their rash behavior.”
Sigmund nodded, and both of them turned their faces toward the shore as people were emerging from the foggy grove. Some were wide-eyed in horror from what they had just witnessed.
At the same time, the sound of pounding hooves filled the air, and two New Orleans police officers came through the fog, drawing their horses to a halt. People gathered around them as they dismounted, telling them about the duel in the oak grove.
Suddenly the man called Veaubien appeared. One of the men who had been filling the officers in on what had happened pointed to the tall, slender man. “That’s one of them!”
Both officers rushed up to Veaubien.
“And the other man?” said one of them.
“He’s dead,” was the calm reply. “My name is Charles Veaubien. The man I just killed was Philip Grasile. These people can tell you that he approached me right here on the docks and challenged me to the duel because I killed his brother, Victor, last Saturday in a duel. They can also tell you that I tried to avoid the confrontation.”
Immediately, several voices spoke up, corroborating Veaubien’s statement.
The officers looked at each other, nodded. One of them said, “We know about your duel with Victor Grasile, Mr. Veaubien. We also know that our chief cleared you of any wrongdoing. It was a legitimate duel and you won. These people have testified of the same thing, here with Victor’s brother. You are free to go.”
Veaubien nodded, turned, and headed for the Hardik boat. The officers entered the oak grove, picked up the body, draped it over one of their horses, and rode away.
The riverboat passengers got in line at the gangplank as Sigmund and Zofia looked on from the second level. They watched Charles Veaubien as he handed his ticket to one of the crewmen and stepped on deck. When everyone was on board, a small crowd gathered around Veaubien, commenting on the duel.
The swirling mists that hugged the ground and the river began to dissipate, and the sun’s light was breaking through bright and clear.
Sigmund Hardik signaled to the man inside the pilot’s cabin. The man pulled a rope cord above his head. The boat’s whistle sounded from the roof of the pilot’s cabin, hissing steam.
Sigmund lifted his voice loud enough for all to hear, told the passengers his name, and introduced his wife. Since for most of the passengers this was a pleasure trip, Sigmund assumed a cheerful attitude to help offset the impact of the violent death that had just taken place. He greeted his passengers warmly in his distinct European accent, telling them he hoped they would have an enjoyable ride up the Mississippi, however far they were going. With a bright expression on her face, Zofia also welcomed the people, saying if there was anything she and her husband could do to make their trip more comfortable, to please let them know.
The passengers applauded. Sigmund and Zofia waved at them, smiling, and the whistle blew again. The workmen on the dock released the thick ropes that held the boat to the dock. The Hardik crewmen reeled the ropes in from the side of the boat, and the paddle wheel began churning water. With black smoke roiling from the smokestacks, the boat pulled away from the dock and headed north up the mighty Mississippi.
Sigmund and Zofia descended the metal steps to the main deck and began milling among the passengers. While they were talking to one New Orleans couple, the man said, “Mr. Hardik, have you heard before of that Frenchman, Charles Veaubien?”
“No, sir,” said Sigmund. “I haven’t.”
“He is a well-known gambler in our city. He has been in scrapes before at the casinos, but his duel with Victor Grasile last Saturday was his first in New Orleans. I’ve been told that he killed several men in duels in France.”
“Probably so, since he came out the winner in both duels with the Grasile brothers. He has to be a good shot, and he must have some experience along those lines.”
The Hardiks continued to move among the passengers, greeting them and doing everything they could to make them feel welcome on board. Soon they found themselves coming up on Charles Veaubien, who had just turned away from two men with whom he had been talking.
The Frenchman smiled at them. “Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Hardik! I am so pleased to get to meet you.” He shook hands with Sigmund, and when Zofia offered her hand, he took it gently, bowed, clicked his heels, and touched his lips to her knuckles.
When Veaubien turned to her husband, Zofia covertly wiped the moisture from her knuckles on the skirt of her dress.
Still smiling, Veaubien said in his pronounced French accent, “I came to New Orleans from Paris almost a year ago, Mr. Hardik. From the very first day I arrived here, I heard about Hardik Lines, and have heard much since. I have been looking forward to taking this necessary business trip up the Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri, on one of your boats. I did not know I would be so fortunate as to meet the owner of the company and his charming wife.”
Sigmund smiled broadly. “Well, we’re glad you’re aboard, sir.”
“Thank you.” He ran his gaze between the Hardiks. “I must apologize for the spectacle I became when I was forced to face Philip Grasile in the duel just prior to boarding your boat.”
“No apology is necessary, Mr. Veaubien,” Sigmund assured him. “It was quite apparent that you had no choice in the matter. You certainly tried to avoid it.”
Veaubien nodded. “Even as I tried to avoid the duel with Philip’s brother last Saturday. It was over a poker game. Victor accused me of cheating and challenged me to a duel. I was unable to persuade him differently.”
Sigmund looked him square in the eye. “Did you cheat him?”
Holding Sigmund’s gaze without flinching, Veaubien said, “I did not.”
During these moments while Sigmund was in conversation with Charles Veaubien, Zofia stuck close to her husband’s side. The gambler left her a bit off balance, and she was still perplexed about the duels, and why they were necessary. She carefully listened to Veaubien’s words to Sigmund, but in her heart, she felt there had to be a more civilized way to settle disputes than by two men squaring off and shooting at each other. Even though Sigmund seemed to understand Veaubien’s explanation of the duels, she had grave misgivings. She told herself this dueling business must be a man thing. She certainly had never heard of two women squaring off with pistols to settle a quarrel.
The Frenchman’s words invaded her thoughts when he said, “Mr. and Mrs. Hardik, you both have strong accents. Where in Europe are you from?”
“We are from Baja, Hungary,” replied Sigmund. “We came to America four years ago to build a new life here in the land of the free.”
“I came here—to New Orleans—because the gambling is so profitable. But not because I felt in bondage in France.” Veaubien’s eyebrows arched. “Things were bad in Hungary?”
“Yes,” said Sigmund. “It was the political unrest in Hungary. It is still the same today and has been going on since the Hungarians fought the Habsburgs and lost the battle in 1711. From that time until now, Hungary has not been its own country but a mere province of the Habsburg Empire, which has been the ruling house of Austria since the thirteenth century.”
Veaubien rubbed his pointed chin thoughtfully. “Really? I recall hearing something about the Habsburgs and the Hungarians when I was in school, but that’s been several years now. Refresh my memory with a little more detail, would you?”
“I don’t want to bore you.”
“Oh, you won’t bore me! I find this interesting.”
Sigmund looked at Zofia, shrugged, and looked back at the Frenchman. “Well, in 1849, the Hungarians—longing to be free—revolted against the Austrian Habsburg regime and brought about a bloody battle. Sad to say, the Hungarians were defeated. But this did not break their spirit.”
“Ah yes. Some if it is coming back to me now. It was after Emperor Franz Joseph came into power in Austria that something changed.”
“Yes. After more years of rebellion by the Hungarian people against Austrian rule, Emperor Franz Joseph conceded to a point, and the Compromise of 1867 took place, which resulted in a dual monarchy of Austria, the empire, and Hungary, the kingdom.”
Veaubien was nodding. “And the Austria-Hungary combination is now a federated state of two parliaments and two capitals—Vienna and Budapest.”
“Exactly. So in addition to being emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph is also king of Hungary.”
“Yes, yes. I recall learning some of this in school, as I said. I am glad to have it refreshed to my memory. So apparently the twenty-six years under the Compromise has not done much to satisfy the Hungarians.”
“Only a little. Though the Compromise helped our country to have at least a degree of independence and a remotely better economy, the people still resent the dual monarchy and the serious problems that come with it. They still rise up periodically to show their rebellion, and it makes things worse. Most of the time there is bloodshed.”
Veaubien rubbed his chin again. “So there really isn’t freedom in Hungary at all.”
“Right. It was the lack of real freedom in our country that finally drove Zofia and me to pack up our daughter, Andra—who was fourteen then—and come to America.”
A lump formed in Zofia’s throat and unbidden tears misted her eyes as she listened to her husband recount the trials and tribulations they had been through in their homeland. For the most part, she had come to love America and their comfortable home in Memphis, Tennessee, but listening to Sigmund speak of Hungary caused a nostalgic longing to fill her for her native homeland and all the loved ones and friends left behind. Giving herself a mental shake, she touched Sigmund’s arm. “Dear, will you and Mr. Veaubien excuse me, please? I need to go to our cabin.”
“Why, of course,” said Sigmund, noting the mist in her eyes. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I just need to sit down for a while.” With that, she patted her husband’s arm, nodded to the Frenchman, and walked away in what was now clear sunshine.
When Zofia entered the cozy cabin on the second deck, she closed the door softly behind her. She made her way across the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. Allowing her overwrought emotions to spill out, she wept quietly for several minutes. Finally, she took a handkerchief from the nightstand, dabbed at her wet cheeks, and lifted her face heavenward.
“Dear Lord,” she said, her voice choking a bit, “You know I love this free land of America, and this is now my home. I don’t wish to return to Hungary, but sometimes I do get lonesome for my family and the places that are familiar to me. Please calm my torn spirit and help me to be thankful for Your abundant blessings. After all, my real home is in heaven. Anything on this earth is only temporary.”
Picking up her Bible, she turned to one of her favorite passages: Hebrews 13:5. Dabbing at her eyes, she read it aloud: “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.”
Drying the last trace of tears from her cheeks, she whispered, “Thank You, Father, for the contentment that only You can give!”
When Zofia had walked toward the metal stairs that would take her up to the cabin, Sigmund continued his discussion with Charles Veaubien. “We had heard repeatedly about the new life thousands of Europeans were finding in America. We began to talk about it a lot, including Andra in our conversations, and after praying much about it, the three of us agreed that we should go to America.”
An unpleasant expression shadowed Veaubien’s countenance at Sigmund’s mention of praying about going to America.
Sigmund noticed it, but went on. “I owned seven tour boats in Hungary, Mr. Veaubien, which carried tourists between Budapest and Baja on the Danube River. I sold my boats, and we came to America. When we arrived in New York City, I did a little research and learned of the paddle-wheel riverboats on the Mississippi River; and after praying about it, we decided to go to St. Louis, where I could look into the riverboat business.”
Veaubien put on a smile and said, “Well, St. Louis would be a good place to start.”
“It proved to be just that. On the very first day we arrived in St. Louis and I went to the docks, I learned about a man in Memphis, Tennessee, who was retiring and wanted to sell his eight paddle-wheel riverboats. I had enough money from selling the boats in Hungary to purchase the man’s boats. Thus, the Hardik Lines of riverboats was established. It is working out well, and my family and I are happy.”
“I’m glad for that,” said the Frenchman.
“Ah, Mr. Veaubien, I…ah…noticed that when I mentioned prayer, it seemed to bother you.”
The gambler chuckled. “Well, Mr. Hardik, it’s just that I believe a man simply has to plow his own way through the fields of life. I met a man in New Orleans a couple of months ago who kept talking like you do. He was a nice little fellow, but he brought up the subject of prayer a lot and things the Bible says about heaven and hell and my need of salvation.”
Sigmund let a smile curve his lips. “Heaven, hell, and salvation, eh?”
“Well, let me ask you, Mr. Veaubien, if you had been the one to die in that duel back there in the oak grove, which place would you have gone? Heaven or hell?”
Charles Veaubien chuckled nervously, tossed a glance toward the rear of the boat, and looked back at Sigmund. “Ah…there’s a man waiting back there in the stern to talk to me. I’d better go see him. Please excuse me.”
With that, the gambler hurried away.
Al Lacy has written more than ninety novels, including the Angel of Mercy, Battles of Destiny, and Journeys of the Stranger series. He and his wife, JoAnna Lacy, are coauthors of the Mail Order Bride, Hannah of Fort Bridger, and Shadow of Liberty series. The Lacys make their home in the Colorado Rockies.
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Highly Recommended - you must check it out! This is one of the best books I've read in a long time.
A great book re' religious persecution and freedom found in the Americas. Good history about the Statue of Liberty too. Takes place in mid 1850s. I couldn't put it down.