Eyes Like the Sea / translated by R. Nisbet Bain, by Mór Jókai

Chapter xi

Valentine Bálványossi and Tihamér Rengetegi

When the beech-mast began to fall from the trees in the beginning of October, unexpected guests came to us at Tordona — two country gentlemen from the beechwood district. They were kinsmen keeping house together, whose whole estate consisted of forest, and whose whole economy was an enormous herd of swine. They were both jolly thick-set men, with fur pelisses of nicely embroidered sheepskins, and boots of red Russian leather. They had come to rent the beech-mast district in the Tordona forests. Pig just then was an article not quoted in the market. Hungarian money there was none. It had all been destroyed. German money had not yet been introduced. Pig-rearers were therefore obliged to let their herds go into winter quarters. The pigs in question were really fine fellows of the good old Szalonta breed, with legs as long as stags’, red bristles and pointed ears; they were half-savage beasts, too, who faced the wolf instead of fleeing from him. They develop but slowly, however; only after two years’ time do they become as large as the Mangalicza swine. But they more than atone for this fault by the good quality of wanting neither stall nor sty; winter and summer alike they camp out in the woods and seek their own food, thus costing their masters no more than two florins a head, and three pints of palinka,65 which is the perquisite of the swine-herd. Each of these kinsmen had a thousand of such pigs.

65 Hungarian brandy.]

And a thousand pigs give a man a lot to think about.

They were good, genial fellows. In fact, they knew not what melancholy meant. It was now the season when the new wine was beginning to ferment. The two kinsmen used to drink it in that state, and I joined them. It went very well with well-peppered swine stew.

They brought a new song with them also, and I learnt it.

“The milk-pail stood behind the door,

The Gendarme came, flopped in and swore!

Dárum-madárum, dárum-madárum!”

From this song I gathered that there was now a being in the world called Gendarme,66 and also that the Magyars had no very great affection for him.

66 Zsandar. The name as well as the thing was quite new to Hungary. — TR.]

It was only after supper that the guests began to give me to understand that they did not yet know “whom they had the honour of addressing.”

My worthy host constrained his honest features, and introduced me under the pseudonym by which I was known in the village, “Mr. Albert Benke.”

“Surely not the actress Rosa Laborfalvy’s younger brother, Bebus?”

“Yes, Bebus! the very same.”

(That might pass very well. Poor Bebus! he had perished in some out-of-the-way corner during the war.)

“Why, I knew him quite well! I have a lively recollection of his features. Why, ’tis Bebus, of course! And how’s your sister? Is it true that she’s married?”

“So I have heard.”

“To a certain Maurus Jókai, eh? Do you know him?”

“I have never spoken to him.”

(And this was quite true.)

“You were one of those theatre-fellows, too, I understand?”

“Yes, I was an actor, certainly.”

“I saw you once at Miskolcz. What were you playing then?”

“Claude Frolló in the Tower of Notre Dame.”

“And won’t you join some other company now?”

“I don’t know whether there is one to be found.”

“What! There is a troupe all ready at Miskolcz at the present moment. They mean to play at the new theatre during the coming winter, and then they are going to Kassa. Bálványossi wants to put new blood into his company. You know the director, Valentine Bálványossi, don’t you?”

I was just on the point of blurting out that he was from the same birthplace as myself. He was, in fact, the person who had coached Bessy in the rôle which she had to play with me in our second dramatic entertainment. All I did say, however, was that I knew him by report.

“Anyhow, he knows you very well. He asks frequently about you. If he only knew that you were loafing about here he would certainly come and see you.”

It only needed that!

“I was not aware that he was able to collect together another troupe.”

“Oh dear, yes! Why, he’s got a prima donna now. She is his wife also. Such a bonny little bride! She’ll turn the heads of all the young fellows, I know. But you’re in hiding here, are you not?”

“In hiding?”

“Yes, and I tell you what —entre nous, of course — Bálványossi also has reason to make himself scarce.”

“Why?”

“Why, because he played such a great part in the Revolution.”

I never heard anything about it.”

“Ah! but he might have been a famous man without your hearing anything about it. You also were a comedian during the Revolution, weren’t you?”

I allowed him to suppose so.

Then the second kinsman took up his parable. He was better informed than the first one.

“Let me make things clear to you, amice! During the Revolution, the theatre director, Valentine Bálványossi, acted under the name of Tihamér Rengetegi.”

“Ah! yes, of course, I remember the name.”

“Many a nut has he cracked beneath the very noses of the Germans.”

The other kinsman confirmed the statement.

“If they can only catch him they’ll make the wind cool his heels for him.”

“But that theatre director is really a most knowing rogue,” explained the younger kinsman, with a laugh. “During the Revolution, he entered the service of the Hungarian Government and rose to be major. They say he performed prodigies. But at the same time he took the precaution to completely alter his personal appearance. During the Revolution he dyed his beautiful fair hair a deep black, and carefully fostered a gigantic moustache with whiskers to correspond; in that guise he looked exactly like Don Cæsar de Bazan. When, however, things began to go wrong, he speedily had his hair shaved off and his beard also, and is now waiting in retirement till his original fair hair has grown again. Then he will once more come before the world as Valentine Bálványossi; and who will dare to say that there was ever such a person as Tihamér Rengetegi?”

One really must admit that it was a stroke of genius to serve the Revolution with a black-dyed head of hair!

“When he hears that you are strolling about here he will most certainly come and engage you.”

It was necessary to put a stop to this forthwith.

“I regret that I shall not remain here very long,” I said; “I, too, have to go up to Pest.”

“And what is your business at Pest?”

“I want to look out for some appointment.”

At this, both the pig-Croesuses pulled a very wry face. Whoever went to Pest in those days to seek an appointment was looked upon with suspicion. It was as well to have as little as possible to do with such a person.67

67 It was a point of honour with every loyal Hungarian to starve rather than to accept any appointment whatsoever from the Austrian Government. — TR.]

Henceforth the pair of them treated me very superciliously.

I, however, continued to go about and paint landscapes in the vast beech forests. I have those pictures by me still. What splendid motives I had; if only the hand of a true artist had been there to seize them! In the midst of the gloomy virgin forest lay the ruin of a Paulinian cloister — gigantic Gothic walls of grey granite; on the friezes of the pillars winged angel-heads; the pointed arches terminated in flowers, and these stone-flowers were supplemented by the living stone-rose, which grew luxuriantly between the mouldings. Behind the vast blue-shadowed ruin lay the dark beech forest; in front was a spring, which, in wondrous wise, bubbled forth from the roots of a huge prostrate linden. From the summit of the ruin depended a large and ample hazel-nut tree, the foliage of which was now a reddish-brown from the autumn frost, while from the windows the dark-green chaplets of the wild-rose tree hung down in the midst of cornel-shrubs and spindle-plants variegated with scarlet, pink, and vermilion berries. And the floor of the ruin is covered with a tangled carpet of brownish-green angelica. And there is but one single living figure in this vast and silent tableau. From the gloom of the ancient church porch a timidly glancing stag peeps forth like the mythical guiding-star of the Hunnic–Magyar pagan legends. Alas! thou white-antlered hind of our ancient leader Almos, whither hast thou led us? Would that thou hadst left us in Asia! There, at any rate, we should not have been obliged to learn German!

And then that other picture, the mighty stone of the Holy Ghost. This was a rock as large as a tower, which rose from the edge of the table-land. Close beside it were two gigantic beech-trees, whose summits just reached up to the middle of this rock, and Autumn, that great decorative artist, had touched the leaves of one with reddish-brown, and the other with golden-yellow. On the very top of this rock are three trees rich with verdure: how did they ever get up there?

It is possible to scramble up at the risk of one’s neck, and from thence one can see fresh pictures to paint. From the dizzy height of the rock a view into a deep valley opens out. The two lines of hill opposite are closed up by a curved and undulating range of other hills. The setting sun lights up the hillside, and bathes the whole scene in transparent lilac mist, while the forest fringe of the summits projects in sharply defined golden lines. Down below, the valley winds along like a dark-green ribbon, and on the spot where it is lost in the evening mist is to be seen a little hut whose kitchen fire twinkles from the depths like a blood-red star. Can any human creature be living there?

But the most magnificent landscape-motive (in which I was happily immersed) was the panorama which presented itself from the “Precipice Stone.” This “Precipice Stone” was the highest point of the beech mountain-district. Viewed from Tordona, it was like a projecting mountain-spar, but one could get to the top of it by making a long circuit. This rock was generally the goal of my wanderings. It took half a day to get there and half a day to get back, and at midday I used to kindle a fire of twigs and make a princely banquet of toasted bread and bacon; and then, sitting down on the dizzy edge of the rock, I would tackle the impossible artistic problem — at least it was impossible to me. Beneath my feet, in the foreground, was a dark spot formed by a crown of beech-trees, and where this ended there was a smiling little nook, and in the midst of it tiny, smoky, stony Tordona, with its scattered cottages, surrounded by their yellow dice-like vineyards, and their hills striped with green corn, above which the still darker green beech hills show their heads. Above these crowds the group of the Gömöri Hills, whose shadows are now deepening into lilac; but these again are dominated by the chain of the Trencséni and Turoczi Hills. These hills are of a clouded blue, and above them rises, like a fata Morgana, the princely range of the fair Carpathians, as blue as heaven itself, and only to be distinguished from it by the dividing line of their diamond-like snowy peaks. My skill was, naturally, not equal to such a task. If I succumbed when I struggled with it, that was not my fault.

With a mighty lead-loaded oaken staff in my hand, and a sharp kitchen-knife in my roomy jack-boots, I deemed myself sufficient to cope with any wolf I might meet on the way. As for a musket, those who had them took good care to keep them well hidden. Rumour said that to be found with a musket was as much as a man’s life was worth.

The middle of October had come.

Another guest now arrived at Tordona. This time it was a heartily welcome guest, the merry-minded Telepi. He had come to fetch his little Charlie that he might take him abroad for his education. He was the favourite comic actor of the National Theatre. . . . He had a round face, a round figure, and was all vivacity, with sparkling eyes, pointed eyebrows, and tiny pointed moustache; it was just as if he had four eyebrows and four moustaches: he was Hungarian humour personified.

’Twas he who brought me my first news from the outside world: the horrible events of the October days, the inconceivable deeds of horror done by a madman,68 who was not even sufficiently punished by being burned alive twice.

68 Haynau. — An allusion to the massacre of Hungarian prisoners and the brutalities inflicted on their wives. — TR.]

Fortunately, I heard these things from a joking, smiling, devil-may-care, comic mouth! For Telepi knew how to season the tidings with so many happy anecdotes and comforting assurances that he quite turned the edge off the murderous knife. And then he was so full of optimism. “Our time is coming,” he would say. “England and France are hastening to our assistance. The Turks are arming, the Americans are showing their fists.” And when I shook my head at all this, he comforted me with the assurance that an amnesty was at hand.

But when we were quite alone, and nobody else was listening, then he told me everything frankly, and without embellishment.

My wife would have come herself, but she had been ailing; in fact she had been very ill. She was better now. As soon as she could leave her bed she would hasten to me at Tordona. I might expect her this very month. My wife had a plan whereby she hoped to free me completely, so that I should not be exposed to persecution any more. What it was, however, she could not tell me. She only begged one thing of me, but that she begged most earnestly, and it was this: until she came to me I was to show myself nowhere, hold no communication with anybody, let nothing be known of my whereabouts. I was not even to write a letter, for they might recognise my handwriting, and then all would be over. So I had to solemnly promise that I would go nowhere, and speak to nobody whatever but the good and honest men of Tordona. I gave my word upon it.

My wife sent me at the same time a warm winter overcoat, a large fur cap, and a pair of double-soled Russia-leather boots. Winter was approaching, and I should have to spend it here among the forests. Telepi also brought me a little silver money from my wife, for bank-notes were of no use here. She also sent me some coffee. That, too, was not to be had here, and I am fond of it in the morning. In the course of the conversation, Telepi inadvertently let out that my wife had sold her emeralds, had gone into pokey lodgings, and was living very sparingly. “But what’s the good of fretting?” he added. “The God of the Magyars is still alive!” I shall never forget that jocose, smiling face, when, in the midst of his magnanimous assurances, a tear suddenly rolled down his round, red countenance!

Then I gave all the pictures I had painted hitherto to Telepi, that he might take them home to my wife.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11