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

Chapter xvi

Soldiering

The idyll did not last very long, and was quickly followed by the epic.

War broke out, not among the young married folks, but among the European Powers. This only so far concerned my ward as Kvatopil was also mobilized; with his dragoon regiment he went towards the eastern frontier. Bessy, naturally, went with him.

We parted abruptly. They both came to me to say good-bye. Kvatopil’s face was radiant with joy, and the reflection of it was visible in the smiling face of the lady. There will be war. The soldier’s harvest will now ripen.

For the purpose of sending her her quarterly allowance it was absolutely indispensable that I should know their place of sojourning.

“Our title for the present will be-‘An Ihre hochwohlgeboren Frau Oberlieutenantin Elisabeth von Kvatopil!’ For the present, I say. Later on we shall no doubt advance farther and higher.”

Farther towards the frontier, and higher in the scale of rank, I suppose?” said I, by way of solving the rebus.

My ward (she was four years younger than I) was very pleased with my polite elucidation, and the pair of them parted from me in the best humour in the world.

After that I received a letter from my ward every week. There is absolutely nothing in the most intricately combined knights’ moves of the severest chess problems which can be compared with their peripatetic zigzagings. Now towards the south, a week afterwards towards the west, then up again towards the north, retreating, advancing, then back again; knocking about in such utterly unknown hamlets, that one could only discover them on the best charts by means of microscopes. Finally, the war took a flying leap into Wallachia and Moldavia, skipped about Jassy and Bucharest, and then leaped across and all along the Pruth, and at last settled down in Czernovicz, till it had to move on farther to Przemysl, whence again it happily doubled back by way of Stry, Munkács, Tokaj, Miskolcz, Kecskemet, and through Kalocsa again to Buda–Pest.

Bessy accompanied her husband everywhere. All the vicissitudes of the seasons which naturally abounded in such a martial pleasure trip she patiently endured with him. The letters which she sent to me during this period would make a very interesting chapter in a history of camp life. Opportunist reasons restrain me from making them public — they might deter our young persons (I allude, of course, to the female sex) from following Bessy’s example.

Often and often I thought how accurately this young woman had foretold all these things of herself when we sat beside each other in my little wooden hut on the Comorn islet. In a straw-hut, in a cow-stall, in a besieged fortress, in a bare barrack, in the tent of an itinerant player, at the bivouac of an out-camping soldier — anywhere and everywhere, it is Love that makes us happy, and its sweet illusion can conjure up fairy palaces out of these wretched surroundings. And remember, too, that an officer in the field is by no means an amiable husband. Plagued, worried, chicaned by his official superiors; flouted by the weather; looking at the enemy with wolf’s eyes, and kept back from falling upon him; eternally bickering with an unfriendly population; a guest beheld with evil eyes; and his wife (if he have one) like an iron chain hanging to his neck — it requires no small amount of love on the lady’s part for her to follow him everywhere, and put up with his ill-humour.

And she had prophesied all this beforehand. What was to be the end of it all?

But there had been no advance whatever up the ladder of rank. My last letter was still addressed to a lieutenant’s lady.

When the great universal war was over, which left behind it so much bitter disillusion, Lieutenant Wenceslaus Kvatopil again came tapping at my door.

Clerk Coloman was no longer with me. The Délibab had come to grief. I now edited the Vasárnapi Ujság, in the place of the publicly advertised and responsible editor Albert Pakh, who was lying ill at Graefenberg. My new name was “Kakas Mártin.”101 Eh, what a popular man I was then! There were Kakas Mártin meerschaum pipes and Kakas Mártin clays, with bowls in the shape of cock-headed men. I really was in the mouth of the nation in those days. O tempi passati!

101 Martin Cock.]

“Ah! ’tis you, brother, eh?” said I.

“So you still recognise me, then?”

I must admit that his physiognomy had considerably changed. During the campaign the officers were permitted to grow absolutely counter-regulationary beard-pieces. Wenceslaus was now bearded à la Haynau, that is to say, the beard was shaved so as to run into the moustache, till the two seemed one, which contributed not a little to the formidability of the whole face. But a still more notable correction of the features was due to his nose, which had grown quite red — a piece of ruby.

He began by laying his index finger on the bridge of his nose.

“Do you see that? My sole booty from the Russo–Turkish war is this red nose. Last winter, while we were encamping on the Galician frontier, I happened to be out in the open field the whole of one night, and got in the way of a villainous Russian blast. The wind drove the powdered snow into my face, and each flake stung me like a red-hot needle-point. I was not even able to turn my back upon it. In the morning my nose was just as you see it now. That same week twenty of my men were frozen to death in their saddles, half of my regiment was down in the hospital with inflammation of the lungs, scurvy, and hunger-typhus. Of my whole squadron I only brought forty men home — and this blood-red nose as a trophy.”

At this I did not know whether to condole with or congratulate him.

“I shouldn’t have minded so much if only we had been able to fight with some one; but to go through a six-months’ campaign without having anything else to do with one’s sword than lay the flat of the blade about the shoulders of stubborn peasants during our requisitions for hay, that I do call hard. Sometimes our foreposts were so close to the enemy that we could see each other’s breath, and yet we were not allowed to attack. At one time we were face to face with the Turks, at another time with the Muscovites. It would have been all one to me whom I pitched into, so long as I could pitch into some one. No such luck! Just when I was fancying that now we really were going to begin the battle, the order came again, ‘Sheathe your swords!’ and we marched somewhere else. I would have preferred storming trenches with cavalry to this sort of thing. And then that cursed maize-bread! Nothing but maize-bread, and not always enough of that. Half-roasted horse-flesh, too! Thank you for nothing!”

“But, thank Heaven, it is all over now!” said I encouragingly.

“It is over, certainly. But what have I gained by it?”

He pointed to his collar. There certainly were only two stars there still.

“No promotion. I am just where I was before. And yet our major has retired. He was obliged to go, poor fellow; every limb was full of rheumatism. Our senior captain was promoted to his place, our second captain into the first captain’s place. His place is now empty. I am the senior lieutenant, but there’s not a word said about me. It is enough to make a fellow blow his brains out!”

I earnestly begged him not to think of such a thing. He had other duties. With such an amiable consort too!

“True, brother! She really is an angel. I dare not think what that woman has gone through during these bitter times. She was with me everywhere; but for her, perhaps, I should have gone to the bad. Ah, my friend, you don’t know what bliss it is when, after going one’s rounds through a biting snowstorm, one returns to one’s quarters to find there an angel awaiting you with a bowl of steaming-hot punch.”

“I do know, for I’ve tried it.”

“The punch never failed. If rum was to be had for money, she got it from somewhere. I have known her, sir, get into her sledge and drive a day’s journey into town to get rum for me. A diamond-hearted woman, I say! And then her love, too! Despite this ruby nose of mine, she loves me. She says it suits me very well. Nay, she is not even hurt at remaining simply the wife of a senior lieutenant. But for her I should have sent a bullet through my head long ago.”

I tried to comfort him with the assurance that a senior lieutenant in active service was worth ever so much more in the world’s estimation than a general on the retired list.

He wound up by inviting me to have a glass of punch with him in the evening as soon as his lodgings were ready to receive me.

I didn’t go.

Frequently did he invite me, by letter in his wife’s name even, and yet I never went to drink punch with them. When we met together afterwards, I always invented some excuse. On the first occasion I said my head ached; on the second occasion I said I was too busy; on the third occasion unexpected country cousins had looked in upon me, and so on.

Every time I met him, however, friend Wenceslaus always wound up with the bitter exclamation: “I shall have to blow my brains out. Still no promotion!”

At last I was tired of telling so many lies, so I told my friend the truth.

Now, there are three sorts of truths in the world.

The first sort of truth is that which pleases my friend, but doesn’t please me.

The second sort of truth is that which pleases me, but doesn’t please my friend.

The third sort of truth is that which pleases neither my friend nor myself, and which brings us to loggerheads at once. Let me illustrate what I mean.

To take number one first, I might have said to friend Kvatopil: “My dear comrade, a constitutional regime prevails in my house: my wife reigns, but I am responsible, and I could never obtain her majesty’s consent to a bill authorizing me to go and have tea once a week with your pretty wife.”

But this truth I did not tell him.

But supposing I had said to him: “My dear lieutenant, I move in a completely different sphere to you. I should be infinitely honoured by your society, but I should not know what to talk to your colleagues about,” that would have been the second sort of truth.

But I did not tell him that.

I told him the third sort of truth. I said: “My dear Kvatopil, if you want to know the reason why you don’t get promotion, I’ll tell you. It is because you are so friendly with me. I am a persona ingrata in the eyes of the authorities. Only yesterday the police paid me a visit, packed up every scrap of paper they could lay their hands on, and carried it off; they even took my pictures out of the frames. Then Police-inspector Prottman came and worried me for half a day by asking me what I knew about Kossuth’s proclamation and the dollar notes. If you keep on visiting me and writing to me, and if I were to go and amuse myself among your brother officers, they would think it gospel truth that you were also concerned in the conspiracy. Fortunately, I always burn your letters of invitation, or Prottman would now be engaged in docketting them.”

My friend was startled.

“I only invited you to a glass of punch!” he cried.

“Punch here and punch there! The police would be sure to read it ‘putsch.’102 And look ye, comrade, to be perfectly candid with you, I think it would be better for you if you left off all this punch-drinking, for ’tis that which makes your nose so red.”

102 A riot or sedition.]

Now that was the truth which pleased neither of us.

“You think so, eh? By Jove, you’re right! It has often seemed to me when I swallow down a glass of punch as if my nose were assuming enormous dimensions and diffusing a radiance all about me. From this day forth I’ll drink no more punch. My word upon it! What’s today? January 23rd? Note it in your diary: ‘On January 23rd, Lieutenant Wenceslaus Kvatopil gave me his word of honour as a gentleman that he would never drink punch again.’"— And he left me no peace till I had entered it in my diary.

“Nay, more than that, no kind of brandy, or schnaps, or wine, or beer; in a word, no sort of spirituous liquor whatever.”

All this I had to make a note of.

“And now for a whole year and a day we’ll watch the result. Nothing else now but pure water.”

For a whole year after that I saw nothing of Kvatopil, nor did I hear anything of Bessy.

One day, however, my lieutenant suddenly invaded me again; he was still the wearer of two stars only.

“Now, if it isn’t really enough to make a fellow blow his brains out! Again they have passed me over. I went straight to the Colonel. ‘Your Excellency,’ I said, ‘here have I been in the service for the last twelve years. I have faithfully performed my duties. I have never used bad language. I know the regulations. I am at the head of the riding school — and still I am set aside. I want to know what objection they have against me.’”

“Manly conduct on your part, comrade,” I cried.

“And do you know what answer I got? You were quite right, after all.”

“Your suspicious intimacy with me, I suppose?”

“Oh dear, no! Who the devil cares for your chatter about the police? Not you it is, but this red nose! Here it is still, and it stands in my way.” And he viciously tugged at the object that stood in his way as if it were some stubborn remount.

“I don’t understand.”

“Then I’ll make you. The Colonel replied to my interpellation with perfect candour. ‘My dear Kvatopil,’ said he, ‘you have indeed the very best good-conduct report. There’s but one fault which weighs heavily in the scale against you: you are too much devoted to drink.’ ‘What? I? Given to drink? Why, for more than a year I have been drinking nothing but water.’ ‘Impossible!’ cried the Colonel —‘just look at your red nose!’ ‘I acquired that while campaigning out.’ The Colonel shook his head incredulously. ‘But I assure your Excellency that I am speaking the truth, I have written testimony to the fact.’ ‘Then I should very much like to see it.’ So that is why I have come straight to you. My dear friend, I adjure you by your hope of heavenly bliss, if you love me, if you ever loved Bessy, if you would save the life of a human creature, to give me that note-book in which, a year ago, you entered the vow that I made on my honour as a gentleman, that I may show it to the Colonel.”

I energetically resisted this proposal.

“My dear friend, all sorts of ticklish items have been entered in this note-book of mine which absolutely cannot be read by anybody but myself.”

But he solemnly assured me that he would never while he was alive suffer the little book to leave his hands, and would only show to his superior that one page relating to his solemn engagement, so that at last I was obliged to submit to his discretion. He promised to return in an hour’s time.

And he kept his word. In an hour he returned, gave me back my little book, embraced me and pressed me to his breast.

“My friend, you have made me a happy man. I have obtained my object. His Excellency, on reading the oath recorded in your note-book, laughed to such an extent that I could count at least four of his teeth that were stopped with gold. Great Heaven! he eats gold with gold, while I have to gnaw bones with bone! When he had somewhat recovered from his outburst of hilarity, he smacked me on the shoulder, and said: ‘Mr. Lieutenant, a great injustice has been done you. You are not a drunkard. There has been a mistake. This must be seen to. And I promise you that at the very first vacancy you shall obtain your third star.’”

This promise raised my friend into the seventh heaven of delight. Hope gave him back the desire of life.

This now is the speciality of a soldier’s life. We poor civilians can have no idea of the joy he felt, especially if we be nothing but simple-minded authors. For an author has only one star, and that is high above his head. If he can get it, he may keep it, ’tis his. If he cannot get it himself, nobody in the world can get it for him.

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