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

Chapter xiv

The Demon’s Bait

I said in the last chapter that the lady was looking straight into my eyes with the glance of Circe. Then she shrugged her shoulders, flung herself down beside the fire-ashes, and began to blow the cinders so as to entice a flame from the smouldering embers.

“It’s useless to give advice to me, for I always do exactly the contrary. Let us rather have a chat together. What is your fate, now?”

“The fate of the grub when it is in its chrysalis.”

“Then it was not without cause that I went to you that evening when you shut your door in my face? And yet I only said what I did because I feared that either the gibbet or suicide awaited you on the path you chose to take.”

Here her voice trembled, her chin, her lips twitched convulsively, and her eyes filled with tears.

A lady in tears is dangerous!

I did not hasten to dry her tears. On the contrary, I replied with cool cynicism:

“Every career has its own peculiar maleficium— drowning awaits the sailor, shooting the soldier; the doctor may fall a victim to an epidemic; the glass-maker suffers from caries; choke-damp kills the miner; and he who meddles with politics runs a chance of being hanged or guillotined.”

“No, no! They shall not do it!” she cried hoarsely, seizing my hand in both her own.

“I do not want them to do it,” I said, “and that is why I am hiding myself here at the back of beyond.”

“But how long is this to go on? What future do you see before you?”

“For the present I am like the convalescent beggar whose promenading does not go beyond the house-door. I thought of beginning a little farming in this valley and forgetting all my dreams of glory. I shall become an agriculturist.”

“Very nice! And your wife?”

“She will join me.”

“And you seriously think so? You think she’ll come and settle down with you in a hut with a clay floor and a straw roof, like the one you are living in now.”

“It’s a palace compared with what we lived in in our Debreczin days. When my wife did the cooking — for we had no servant — we loved each other better than ever. In a little house loving hearts are nearer to each other than in a large palace.”

“It was possible then, no doubt. I have experienced the same thing. But this is quite different. When a man has such brilliant hopes, want is no affliction. It will be over soon, he thinks. But to enter upon misery with the knowledge that it will last till death, is beyond the power of resignation. And particularly with a woman! Believe me, I know my own sex. Your wife, who now stands at the summit of her artistic fame, cannot quit her brilliant career. No! If you were an angel she could not.”

I could not defend my point of view against her. Stern reality was on her side; on my side were only faith and imagination.

“I believe in my wife’s promise to deliver me out of my difficult position.”

“I can’t imagine how. She cannot do what I can do for Bálványossi — in other words, accuse herself and say: ‘It was not he who proclaimed freedom on March 15th. It was not he who wrote those heart-stirring articles to the nation. It was not he who edited those newspapers; not he who went to battle with the armies; not he who inspired the Honveds at the siege of Buda: but I.’ Your wife cannot take your fault on her shoulders.”

I couldn’t help laughing.

“I would not let her.”

“But let us suppose that a great artiste, a renowned beauty, might perhaps manage by some means or other to procure an amnesty for her hidden husband” (and as she said this she discharged murderous, envenomed darts at me from the corners of her eyes), “what will be your subsequent lot when you return to Pest as a rebel amnestied at the intercession of his wife? The earth and the sky which you used to adore have vanished. No poet, no newspaper, no publisher: what will you do? Will you enter a lawyer’s office again to copy deeds, issue summonses, and serve writs at so much a day? Or will you translate comedies (under official protection) at fifty florins each for the National Theatre; or paint fashionable portraits of butchers’ wives at five florins apiece? Or, perhaps, you’ll do nothing at all, but live simply under the wing of your wife as ‘the actress’s husband,’ and see a woman bending beneath the load of sustaining a household — accomplishing the most exhausting work; coming home after her day’s acting is over, tired to death, excited, unstrung. See her, poorly though she be, hurry from one provincial town to another, acting uncongenial parts, so as to scrape together a little money wherewith to satisfy the Jews with whom she has to haggle for the material for her costumes. And the husband must look on at all this with his arms folded, or, if he does anything at all, may perhaps paint the flowers for her costumes, which she herself will then sew on with her own hands.”

“It will not last for ever — other times will come.”

“Other times! You think other times will come, eh? Now, that is what I fear most of all. I know you well. You are not the sort of man who can content himself with the thought — what is past is over! You will never forget what you used to be, still less what you meant to be. The glory of fame is not forgotten as easily as a pawned jewel. You will again fall into those straits from which you have been set free.”

And the woman saw right into my soul. My face is so maladroit that it never could keep a secret. You can read my features like an open book. When I am frightened, it is vain for me to pretend that I am plucky. When I’m in a rage, it is useless for me to affect calmness — nobody is taken in by it. I cannot even haggle over a bargain properly, people can read from my face what I have to give. This woman could see where my soul was wandering in secret, far, far away, in a gloriously arisen Hungary of the future. And she regarded this talk of turning farmer as little more than the incoherent delirium of a fevered visionary.

“Let it be as you say,” I said. . . . “If I live I will build a tower out of the ruins of my country’s glory; if I die, my grave will become an altar. Vainly does this coward flesh of mine tremble in every nerve. I am neither a hero nor a giant. The report of a gun makes me tremble; I grow pale in the presence of death; grief draws tears from me — but I will not depart from my set path. If I cannot write under my own name, I will write under the name of my landlord’s dog. I will be ‘Sajó.’87 We’ll bark if we can’t speak, but we’ll not be silent.”

87 My works “Forradalmi és csatakepek,” “Bujdosó naplója” were written under the pseudonym Sajó. — JÓKAI.]

The lady, in terror, seized me by both arms.

“For Heaven’s sake, take care! A step backwards, and you’ll fall over the rock.”

“But I don’t mean to take a step backwards.”

“Listen to me quietly. Don’t fly into a rage. Sit down beside me. You need have no great fear of me. I am not a luring demon. I have not a word to say against what you’ve said. Do whatever your soul bids you. I ask for nothing more. Don’t you believe that I’ve a good heart also?”

“I believe that you’ve a little too much heart.”

“Perhaps all that my heart led me to do was sinful. I was mad. I was blind. Passion got hold of me; but the feeling I had for you would not have been out of place in heaven itself. When I am alone, I am always with you; and when I think of anything I think of you. I wish you to go onwards and upwards along the rugged path that you have entered upon; but can you do it here, with a leaden weight on your feet, a padlock on your mouth, and a strait jacket on your body?”

“’Tis because it is heavy that I must needs carry my burden.”

“But how much more brilliant would be the success of your struggle if you could continue it on a foreign soil — in free France, for instance! Just think! If you were now to appear in Paris, the leaders of the French literature would receive you with open arms. The French public would enrol you among its great writers, and then you might write of the glory, the sufferings, and the heroic struggles of Hungary, and of the amiable qualities of its people; you might write all this with perfect freedom, from the very bottom of your heart, and millions and millions, the whole round world, would read your writings, and not merely a handful of people, as here at home. There you would be a rich man, here you are only a day-labourer. Here you might sing like a Tyrtæus, and the world outside would hear nothing of it; but if you raised your voice abroad in the midst of a great nation and a cosmopolitan capital, your voice would be like the horns of Joshua before the walls of Jericho.”

Ah! how luring was the panorama. . . . To become a great French writer! To be raised aloft on the shoulders of the most glorious of nations! What here at home was but the crack of a whip in my hands, would there be a thunderbolt!

“But it is impossible,” I objected. “How could I possibly force my way to the frontiers of France from the depths of Tordona, through my own country, through Austria, through Germany, without a passport, without money, in a semi-Asiatic garb? Just as well might I cast myself down from the mountain-top in the belief that I could fly.”

“Well, come now, I have a very good plan to suggest to you. I’ve got an English passport. Have I not told you exactly how I got it? None besides yourself knows that I have it, except, of course, the officials who have viséd it on the way. In this passport the blank for my travelling companion has not yet been filled up. You asked me just now why I did not insert the name and description of Bálványossi. Now, I’ll tell you. Nobody is pursuing him. I always intended to fill up that blank with your name. You won’t have to sacrifice much beyond that little moustache and beard of yours, and resigning yourself to speak nothing abroad but French and German. I appoint you my secretary. I myself am an English lady. We mustn’t go viâ Vienna. But the way is clear in the direction of Breslau. I have quite enough money for us both. I still retain the hundred ducats which I received at Debreczin. We shall do sumptuously with this till we get to Paris. My capital in the Vienna bank I can leave where it is, or I may have it sent after me, and the interest from it will suffice for your modest needs at the beginning of your residence at Paris, so that you will not have to resort to the emigrants’ fund. When once you have won a position for yourself in Continental literature you will need no further assistance from anybody. You will be able to refund to me what I advanced to you as a loan. Only as a loan remember, not as a gift; still less do I expect anything in exchange, not even a warm pressure of the hand. I am simply your proselyte whose mission it is to make straight the way of the prophet.”

It was a seductive picture, and still more seductive was she who presented it to me.

To be free! To be able to pronounce my name boldly in the face of every one who met me! Not to tremble at the pattering of every footstep at my door! To fight for great ideas in the company of great and noble minds!

And how her eyes sparkled as she said these words, like the parhelia in the glowing girdle of a solar halo! And her face was as open as a child’s. I could have sworn that she was an artless virgin opening her heart for the first time to a true sentiment. Her hands were folded as if in prayer.

Had I wavered but a hair’s-breadth, I must have plunged down into the abyss.

Ah! what a different man I should have become. Had I fled with her, I should now be the grand master of the Realists, for there is as much erotic flame, satiric vein, and luxurious fancy in me as in them; but I have not used these qualities, because I write for a Hungarian public. Had I flown with her, millions would have read my works, and fathers and mothers would have cursed me as the corrupter of their children. And I should have laughed at them, and tapped the fat paunch, which as an idealistic writer I have never been able to acquire.

And whither would this reinless, bridleless passion have hurried me had I been swayed by such a fascinating Calypso, whose every movement was a charm, whose every word was a snare, who was herself the personified joy of a Mohammedan paradise? For, remember, I was then only four-and-twenty!

Fortunately, a sober thought still remained in my head.

“I mean to remain in my own land,” I said abruptly.

“Why?”

“I will not forsake those who arose at my word. If they lie on the earth, I also will lie down beside them. I will take my share of the suffering of which I was the cause.”

“You won’t remain out in the cold for ever, of course. Haven’t you, then, the hope that those who have sought refuge abroad will one day return in triumph? Then you also will return home at the head of the reprieved.”

Even this weapon she managed to turn against me! Oh, what a weak coat of mail it was that defended me — only a single word!

“I have given my word that I’ll not depart from hence,” I said softly.

“To whom?”

“To her who gave me her word that she would come and seek me here.”

“Your wife?”

“Yes.”

“And if she seeks you, what then?”

“She will bring me liberty.”

“How? In what way?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know, and yet you believe?”

“I believe with my whole heart.”

“And you never think what may be the price of such freedom?”

“I spurn such a thought as often as it arises.”

“You believe in a woman’s loyalty, a woman’s virtue?”

“I do.”

“Then you are a very happy man!”

During this conversation I continued my drawing, and she called my attention to several objects in the landscape which had escaped me. Shortly after that she began a very ordinary conversation about the weather.

“Look! the prophecy of the old forester is well-nigh fulfilled. The sky is quite overcast. The snowstorm will surprise us here.”

“Then, perhaps, it may be as well to call our friend out of his hiding-place?”

“Oh, that will be very easy! I need only give him one signal. He himself selected it from the romance ‘Ivanhoe’— the note of the hero’s horn —‘Wasa hóa!’ At this signal he will appear immediately.”

“Well, I can scarcely see to sketch any more, it is so dark.”

“Then you are determined to go to that little village down there?”

“Yes.”

“No news from the world will ever penetrate thither.”

“That will be all the better for me.”

“You have heard nothing of what is going on outside all this time, I suppose?”

“Nothing pleasant.”

“It is a dreadful world. How would the women manage to live if they couldn’t chatter?”

“They could sew their children’s clothes.”

“Perhaps you haven’t heard that Petöfi’s widow has married again?”

Ah, that was indeed a murderous thrust! A calculated, well-aimed, poisonous dart where there was a weak joint in my coat of mail.

“What do you say?” cried I, in a perfect passion.

“It is a fact known to everybody.”

“Petöfi’s wife! Then what has become of Petöfi?”

“He fell at the battle of Segesvár.”

“Who saw him fall?”

“A Honved officer who testified to the fact. This was quite enough for his widow. She immediately went to the altar with another young writer, who was not perhaps such a knightly hero as your friend, but who is a pleasant young man in a good official position, moving in the best society, and who is able to assure his wife a comfortable existence.”

Every one of this woman’s words went right through my heart.

Now, indeed, after years have elapsed, I can say that poor Julia did well to confide her fate to a good and worthy man. She had a child, and had duties towards that child. But at that moment a heavier blow could not have descended upon my head. The death of our martyrs, let it be never so cruel, was not nearly such terrible news to me as the news that the martyrs had been forgotten.

That any woman could ever forget Petöfi! The woman whom the poet had encompassed with the rays of his soul of flame! That the poet should be able to make himself immortal to the whole world and not to her whom he had worshipped!

No doubt the widow was right, she will be blessed in the next world, and there Petöfi himself will justify her — the righteous are always just; but to me this news seemed to open the very gates of hell. If the grass can grow so quickly over my overthrown idol, what am I, I should like to know? A frog enclosed in a tree, whose calling it is to live for a hundred years — beneath the bark!

“I won’t believe it! I won’t believe it! I won’t believe it!”

She laughed at me. “Now wriggle away!” she seemed to say.

From the crown of my head to the heel of my foot I was full of bitterness. If such a thing as this could happen, why shouldn’t that other thing happen, too? Why shouldn’t another fallen writer forget the promise he had made to his wife, seize the hand of his former ideal, and fly away with her out into the world? That would be tit for tat.

Her two eyes flamed as she looked at me and laughed. It was just as if she knew she had wounded me and would fain stir me up to vengeance.

She had destroyed my idol: belief in a woman’s heart.

Women were all alike!

“No, no, no! My wife is not like other women.”

I sat down on the edge of the precipitous rock, made a speaking-trumpet of the palms of both hands, and called loudly down into the valley “Wasa hóa!”

The echo repeated my words. And not long afterwards could be heard from below the proud refrain:—

“Whom he meets upon his way

Him he cruelly doth slay;

But if a pretty girl draw near,

Ah, then what gayer cavalier!

Tremble and quake ye tongues that lie,

And speak his name all whisp’ringly:

Diavolo, diavolo, diavolo!”

As the song drew nearer, I packed up my traps and clasped my stick all ready to say good-bye.

“Forget what we have been speaking about!”

I said this.

“Have we been speaking about anything, then? I didn’t know!” replied the lady with the eyes like the sea.

“Adieu!”

“Adieu!”

I was quite persuaded that we should never meet again.

I did not wait till my friend had climbed up again out of his hole. They would easily find one another. The snow had already begun to fall in thick flakes. I set off homewards.

The snowstorm drove full against me as I proceeded. I had very nearly lost myself in the forest. The evening had fallen early; by the time I had descended from the hill it was quite dark.

But still darker was what I carried with me in my brain — the black thought that there was now no such thing as love or loving remembrance in the world. Where we fall, there we lie, and none cares. Some of us die, and there is none to mourn us; the rest of us remain alive, and mourn over ourselves.

How fair is the fate of a fallen tree. There it lies, and the ground-ivy covers it.

If the wild beasts were to tear me to pieces now, nobody would know where I had perished.

At last I stumbled upon the linden spring.

This was a good guide. The stream flows right along beside the house of the Csányis; one can get home by keeping near its banks, even in the dark.

My soul blamed me for having passed so much time by the Pagan Altar with that “other” woman.

The snow now completely covered the fields, and through it in serpentine flight darted the threefold stream. The autumn leaves were still on the trees, their crowns bent down beneath loads of snow. The whole landscape was sombre, but it was not more sombre than my soul.

Suddenly, like a ray of hope, the window-light of the little house in which I was lodging flashed out before me. It stood at the end of the village, and was the last house of all.

I was utterly wearied both in body and soul when I arrived at last at the little dwelling.

It had neither courtyard nor enclosure. It stood right out upon the road. The carts and ploughs stood there beneath a shed. There are no thieves here.

The door of the house is never bolted, and it opens out upon a little passage. On the right-hand side of this passage lie kitchen and store-room; on the left the living-rooms, and a side chamber, which served me as a bedroom, and the rest of the family as a sort of withdrawing-room. It is the only room in the house which has a deal floor, all the other floors are of clay.

The kitchen door was also open, and a large fire was blazing on the open hearth. My hostess with her serving-maid was busy baking and boiling.

When I bade her good evening, she glanced at me with a roguish smile.

“Ei, ei! A nice time to come home, I must say! But go into the room — supper will be ready presently.”

I went into the room.

By the lighted stove sat my wife!

Rapturous joy drove every other thought out of my soul.

I don’t know what I said. I wouldn’t believe she was there till I had caught her in my arms and embraced her tightly.

’Tis true, ’tis true, ’tis true — loyalty, love, sweet remembrance still belong to this world!

She told me afterwards — very briefly — how ill she had been. She had wanted to come before, but couldn’t; as it was, she had left Pest by stealth, and had come with a passport made out under a false name. She had suffered much on the way. She had gone astray in the snowstorm in the beech woods, and it had been as much as she could do to find her way again. She had been terrified by the wolves, whose howls even now resounded from the woods.

And all the while I suffered the mental torture of a man who hears the person who is talking to him and the person who has been talking to him at the same time. I saw the one figure and I saw the other also.

Our good host, worthy Beno Csányi, as he sat by the table, kept on mumbling in his beard: “That’s something like a woman — that is a wife, if you like!”

Well, now that we are both together again, what does it all matter?

Yes, but how long shall we be together again?

My wife must go back the day after tomorrow. Only grudgingly had the director of the theatre allowed her a four days’ leave. On the fifth day she must play.

But my captivity was soon to draw to a close.

My wife took a carefully concealed piece of paper from her breast; it was a tiny little grey schedule, but that little schedule was in those days a great treasure. It was the guarantee of my liberation — a Comorn passport.

It was a very simple method of deliverance, as simple as the egg of Columbus.

When the fortress of Comorn capitulated, each of the officers of the garrison there received a passport which guaranteed his life and liberty, and also dispensed him from enrolment in the Austrian army. My wife managed to procure me such a passport in the simplest way in the world. There was a brother of Szigligeti’s in the Comorn garrison, Vincent Szathmary (Szathmary was their family name), who wrote my name down in the list of the capitulating officers as a Honved lieutenant, and handed the passport bearing my name to my wife.

This was the reason why I was obliged to remain in concealment in the meantime.

Thus my dove had brought me two leaves of the olive-branch, namely, life and liberty; but how about the third? I had still to wait for that. I was not free to come forth till I got it. I should have to wait till she came back for me a second time. I no longer ran any risk of being condemned, but I might still run the risk of being interned at my native place, Comorn, and that would have been a fresh torment for me.

Then my wife asked me: “Have you been thinking of me also all this time?”

And if I had not been able to answer, “Always of thee!” and if, while saying this, I had not been able to look her honestly in the face, she would have been amply justified in tearing the passport to pieces and flinging the fragments in my face.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/jokai/maurus/eyes-like-the-sea/chapter14.html

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