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

Chapter xix

Esaias Medvési110

110 Bearish.]

It fared with Wenceslaus Kvatopil as I had predicted.

I am very sorry, but I really can’t help it. Willingly would I bring him back a full major if it depended on me; but it was written in the book of fate that the worthy officer was to end his heroic career on the battle-field. He had at least the consolation of falling in a famous battle. While MacMahon at Solferino broke through the mass of Schlick’s forces, Benedek on the right wing pressed victoriously forwards and drove the Piedmontese army under Victor Emmanuel as far back as San Martino, and there it was that a mortal bullet struck Captain Kvatopil through the heart. Yet I am able to say that at that moment the kisses of his lovely wife pressed the lips of nobody but his own deserted daughter.

The two widows could now share the widow’s veil between them in peace.

The bigamy became known, but of course they could not bring an action for it against a dead man. The events of those great days quickly obliterated all recollection of the petty scandal. Both Anna and Bessy could now assume the title of Widow Kvatopil, and nobody could have a word to say against it. There was this little difference, however, that while the one might style herself Mrs. Captain Kvatopil, the other had only the right to Mrs. Lieutenant.

By the intervention of her lawyer, and with my consent as her guardian, Bessy recovered her deposited caution-money. One thousand florins of it she gave as a gift to Anna, who returned with it to Cracow to her father’s. The rest of the money Bessy invested in a pretty little house, in the village where she was stopping, surrounded by a pleasant garden. I was now quite easy in my mind as to her subsequent fate. She had now her own house, an honourable title —“Özvegy Kapitányné,”111 and a certain regular income. In the little village where she was she could play a leading part. In her present situation, moreover, she was completely protected against all the snares of the evil world, for in this particular village every man was virtuous, and the women ruled them with a rod of iron. To stumble, make a faux pas, and fall into sin was not possible, because it was not allowed.

111 Lit., The widowed Captain’s lady.]

I could now be quite easy as to Bessy’s prospects. A woman who had learnt such bitter experience at her own cost could not help drawing conclusions from the past; and if ever she were to make her choice again she certainly would not allow herself to be led astray by superficial graces, but would judge him whom she might definitely and finally select as the partner of her destiny by his inner worth alone. I even took the trouble, with the true solicitude of a guardian, to write this beautiful and sensible phrase to her in a letter. I also impressed upon her not to give herself away to any official “for the time being,” or any other kind of dog-headed Tartar, for such a husband could only be provisional.112 She gave me her word that she would not do so.

112 Towards this period it was plain that the Austrian domination of Hungary could not last much longer, and that the foreign officials who had been appointed by the Vienna Court must speedily go. — TR.]

For nearly four years I heard nothing more of Bessy. She had fallen into the ranks of those women who do nothing to make people talk about them, and this category is the best of all. Every year I sent her the interest on her money; she acknowledged the receipt of it with thanks, and — that was all.

But I, too, had cause enough not to think of those lovely but dangerous Eyes like the Sea.

My evil stars were in the ascendant.

Not a year passed without a heavy blow descending on my head. At one time it was a dear dead friend whom I had to bury; at another time I had to go through a severe illness which brought me to the very brink of death; I had scarcely recovered when my wife also fell dangerously ill. Through the conduct of persons whom I had regarded as my friends I very nearly became bankrupt; I had to work day and night at my writing-table to draw myself out of the mire. Then my publisher bolted to America; then came a year of calamity, when nobody cared a fig for either books or newspapers; then I had to fight a duel through no fault of my own; and all along there was the wretched fate of my country, which demanded my help. The whole plan of winning back our confiscated liberties was my secret; I was the organ of the Committee, the organ that was tormented, persecuted, insulted by a derisive tyranny. Life under such conditions was like a dreadful dream — an incoherent, continually shifting vision of hope, an eternal nightmare; and when I awoke from this nightmare I found I was quite bald.

One fine spring the Fairy Queen of my fantastic dreams locked me up in prison by way of variation. Nobody can escape his fate. I had founded a political journal. I was its responsible editor and publisher. My assistants were the votadores of the Liberal party. We soon had a large public. I had quite enough to do. It was my business to write romances for this paper, and leading articles too. Once an admirably elaborated article was sent to me, signed by one of the most illustrious names among the Hungarian magnate families. Without more ado I published it. It was a loyal, patriotic article on purely constitutional lines, showing in the most matter of fact way in the world the justice and the necessity of a constitutional government for Hungary. On account of this article, the Governor brought both the Count who wrote it and the editor who inserted it before a court-martial. He signified to the pair of us beforehand that he meant to lock us up for three months for it.

The court-martial consisted of a colonel, a major, a captain, a senior and a junior lieutenant, a sergeant, a corporal, and a private; the last four were Bohemians. Before this Areopagus I delivered a powerful defence in German, to which they naturally replied “March!” The tribunal condemned me and my comrade the Count to twelve months hard labour in irons, on bread and water, with enforced fasting, loss of nobility, and a fine of a thousand florins.

When the sentence was read out, I said to the President:

“This is very strange. The Governor promised us only three months.”

To this the President replied with a smile:

“Yes, three months for the incriminated article, but nine more for your high-flying defence.”

Our sentence was for no offence against the press-laws. Oh dear, no! We were condemned for inciting to a breach of the peace. The Count and I had been throwing stones at the windows, and breaking the gas-lamps in Kerepesi Street! It was as public brawlers that we were sent to cool our heels in jail!

The reader must not expect me, however, to weave a martyr’s crown for myself, or describe the tortures of the Venetian dungeons. . . . The whole of my life in prison was a pure joke and diversion. The Commandant of the place, with whom I lived, used to come every day to tell and be told anecdotes, and then took me out for country walks. He had my writing-table, my books, and my carpentering tools brought into my dungeon, and it was there that I turned out a bust of my wife. The Commandant also was passionately fond of carpenter’s work, so we worked away together at our lathes as if for a wager. There was no talk whatever of chains or fetters, and I was allowed to have with my bread and water the best that money could purchase from the inn. In the afternoons my friends from the Pest Club came to play cards with me, so that when, on one occasion, one of my most radical acquaintances, Beniczky, entered my apartment and looked around, he exclaimed with contemptuous indignation: “Call this a dungeon! Why, there’s no romance at all about this sort of thing!”

Once I took my fellow-prisoner and my jailer to my villa at Svabhegy, where my wife had made ready for us a splendid supper. I tapped my new wine, and we amused ourselves to such a very late hour that when we returned they would hardly let us into prison again. Fortunately we had the Provost with us, and with our assistance he managed to force his way in.

And then my visitors!

In the whole course of my life I never received so many visitors as during the month that my year’s captivity lasted. In the following month, by the way, I had to make room for the editor of the officious government, who was also condemned by the court-martial for disturbing the public peace.

I was sought out in my dungeon by all sorts of good friends, who came from far — lords and ladies, countesses and actresses. It happened once that a magnate’s wife, who was a great invalid, and therefore could not ascend to the second flight where our prison was, begged us to come down to her carriage, and there we received our visitor in the street — poor slaves that we were!

In fact, I had too much of a good thing.

How could I work when my admirers were crowding at my latch all day long? At last I had to beg my jailer, with tears in my eyes, to sentence me to solitary confinement for a couple of hours every day, and write on my door the hours when I was free to receive company. “Wasn’t I in prison?” I said.

I had an honest Bohemian lad as my servant. His name was Wenceslaus. We soon got to understand each other very well.

I explained to him that at certain hours when I was sitting down to work nobody was to be admitted — except when a pretty woman came to see me.

Honi soit qui mal y pense!

And singularly enough, one cannot imagine a more convenient place for an assignation than such a dungeon as mine. I only wonder that our bon-viveurs have not grasped the fact. And what a capital place for an afternoon nap such a locality really is! The best advice I can give to any one who suffers from sleeplessness is — get yourself locked up! Is it not a special mercy of Providence that slaves can sleep so soundly?

One afternoon Wenceslaus aroused me from my sweet afternoon nap with the intimation that a pretty woman wanted to speak to me.

“Really pretty?”

“Oh yes!”

“Oh yes?”

“Oh yes, yes!”

It was indeed “oh yes!” for it was Bessy.

She was dressed in complete mourning, with a black silk veil over her head. I saw from her eyes that she was in mourning for my fate.

I anticipated her by making her a compliment.

“Why, how nice you look, my dear ward! The country air seems to agree with you.”

With this I put a stop to her tearful anxiety on my account.

“I see that the air of a dungeon has not done you much harm, either.”

“And how did you get in here?”

“Not very easily, I can tell you. They would hardly let me in. They said that the prisoner was confined to his room. I thought of giving the warder a box on the ears, and then perhaps they would have shut me up along with you by way of punishment.”

“That would have, indeed, been a heavy chain to bear.”

She laughed.

“I understand the allusion. My figure has become a little sturdy, I know. What else has a person to do in a little country town but grow fat?”

“It is a sign of peace of mind,” I said.

I offered her my arm-chair, and in this act of politeness she read another allusion.

“It has good strong legs, I hope?” said she, as she sat down in it.

I must candidly admit that her figure had grown pronouncedly rotund, but this by no means injured her beauty. She really looked quite appetizing! I was very glad, too, to see her again.

“Don’t take my remarks amiss,” I said; “it is so good for the poor slave when a smiling lady’s face lights up the gloom of his dungeon. A sweet, melodious woman’s voice sounds so consolingly amidst the clanking of his fetters.”

“I am glad to see that you preserve your good humour, for I have come to you on a very serious business.”

“What! Then it was not tender sympathy for the poor captive that brought you hither?”

“That also — I may even say principally. Every day I read in the Fövárosi Lapok how many and what sort of visitors you receive — noble ladies, pretty actresses, and what not. Well, thought I, if they may go and see him, it is only my duty to go too. At the same time there are other circumstances which have brought me here.”

At this she furtively looked around her.

“Won’t they hear what we are talking about through that door?”

“Have no fear. That room is empty. My fellow-prisoner is provided with a separate apartment.”

“I have come to inform you of something. I have petitioned the office of wards to relieve you from your guardianship.”

“And you’ve very good cause, too, I think, seeing that I myself have been under guardianship for some time.”

“That’s not my reason, however. But my position has now become such as to make it indispensable for me to have the free disposal of my money.”

“May I guess the cause? Another misfortune has happened. We have lost our heart again, eh?”

Bessy covered her blushing face with her silk veil.

“Eh, but how you do always detect a thing at once! You would have made a capital magistrate.”

“But it is such a natural thing to suppose. You are so young, you know.”

“I am well advanced in the thirties.”

“You are only four years over thirty. I ought to know, for I was at your christening. Then you have once more discovered your ideal?”

“This time I most solemnly believe that I really have found him.”

“But no provisional person, I hope?”

“Don’t insult me, please.”

“I’m above such a thing. But, as your guardian, I would not have given my consent to it; so I was bound to suppose that that was why you wanted to be freed from my guardianship.”

“Not at all! In future also I mean to take your advice as though it came from my own father. Scold me as much as you like when you catch me tripping. I will continue to be your obedient ward if only you don’t shut the door in my face. All I want is my money. Believe me when I say I will do nothing frivolous with it. The sum will remain to my credit, but I wish to be free to use it as I like in the future.”

“I presume your bridegroom is some squire to whom the amount will be of service?”

“He is not a squire.”

“Then perhaps he is a merchant? That also is an honourable walk in life. In good commercial hands the amount will yield a nice income.”

“He is not a merchant.”

“Then perhaps he is a manufacturer, the proprietor of a saw-mill or a steam-mill?”

“Neither the one nor the other.”

“Then what on earth is he?”

“My bridegroom is a worthy and eminent schoolmaster, whose name is Esaias Medvési.”

“Esaias Medvési! But what the deuce does a village schoolmaster want with twenty-five thousand florins?”

“I’ll tell you presently. But I must go a little farther back first. Have you the time to listen to my story?”

“Of course I have: I remain at home all day.”

“Will nobody interrupt us?”

“My servant is a very sensible fellow, he knows the rules of the place.”

“But won’t they lock the door of the prison behind me?”

An ordinary person would have replied to this question that it would have been no great harm if they did; but I pulled out the drawer of my writing-table and showed the fair lady that I had my own key for opening my prison door. At this she laughed and seemed quite satisfied.

“Well, I’ll begin by telling you how I made his acquaintance.”

“What, your Ezzy?”

“I beg your pardon, but you must always pronounce the name in full, or you will aggravate its owner. He is very particular about giving to every one his full name and corresponding titles; never breaks that rule himself, and constantly addresses me as ‘Worthy dame Captain!’ It is in vain to call me ‘Madame’ in his presence, for he roundly maintains that such a title belongs to the consort of the Prince of Transylvania only. His motto is ‘suum cuique.’ Oh, I’ve learnt such a lot of Latin since I made his acquaintance?”

“Oh, then you have been taking Latin lessons from him, and so the acquaintance began?”

“No irony, please! It didn’t begin that way at all. I suppose you know that in our little town there is a very well attended Calvinist church?”

“I know it pretty well.”

“And I am a very zealous church goer?”

“That I did not know.”

“With us the laudable custom prevails of going to church every Sunday for the purpose of devotion.”

“And to show off your new bonnets.”

“Don’t make fun of me, please. Esaias is not only the schoolmaster, but the cantor and the organist as well. He has a splendid bass voice. When he intones the verse —

‘How blest the man whose walk in life . . . ’

the whole podium trembles. It was that wondrously beautiful voice which first enthralled me.”

“But I should have thought that the organ would have drowned the sound of the hymn?”

“But not only in church have I had the opportunity of hearing him, but at funerals also.”

“Then you condescend to go to funerals too?”

“Not as a habit. But you must know that most of the people there beg me to act as sponsor to their new-born children. Now, two-thirds of our children seem only born to die, and I am obliged to always go to the funerals of my little protégés.”

“Then Esaias is in the habit of speaking and singing over them?”

“Yes, and what beautiful speeches they are too, all in verse.”

“So Esaias is a poet into the bargain?”

“Yes, he really makes most beautiful verses.”

“And I’ve no doubt he wrote a nice onomasticon on St. Elizabeth’s Day?”

“He did nothing of the kind. He’s not that sort of man. It is not his habit to flatter anybody; on the contrary, he always tells them the truth to their faces.”

“That is generally the distinguishing characteristic of all Calvinist schoolmasters.”

“Well, but let us keep to the point. I left off at the funerals, I think. I was struck by the frequent mortality among our little ones, and set in movement a project among the ladies of the town for starting a crèche. The idea found zealous partisans. We soon found a large meeting-room; the ladies supplied linen in large quantities; milk and other necessary aliments were provided by public subscription; money we resolved to collect in the usual way.”

“By a charitable concert?”

“I see that you are a practical man. A charitable concert was indeed arranged, and a committee of seven appointed to manage it. The sessions of this committee were held in my house; mine was the most convenient locality, and I had a piano besides. Each member of the committee had her part assigned to her: one was to recite, another to sing a solo, a third to give a comic reading, a fourth to play a piece on the piano, a fifth to dance a Hungarian dance; I was to fiddle, Esaias was to sing the high priest’s aria from the opera of Nabucco: ‘He who trusts in the Lord!’— You know the rest.”

“Of course I do. At the first meeting of the committee one of the members had a slight misunderstanding with another member, at the second meeting a second member had a second misunderstanding, and by the time the fifth meeting was held Esaias and yourself were left to practise alone.”

“That is, word for word, what did happen, with this little difference, that we never had any practice at all. On the fifth occasion, four of the six members of the committee sent letters of excuse. Every one of them was ill. It was a veritable epidemic. Only the dancing master found no excuse for himself. As he was the only dancing-master in the town he could not go and lie that he had sprained his foot.

“Esaias walked three times up and down in front of my house, puffing away at his big pipe. Every time he passed he looked up at the window, and, seeing nobody there, went on farther.

“At last the dancing-master came chasséing up; I could see from his grinning face that he had some ill-tidings to tell me. Only people who have found some excuse for covering their retreat come smiling like that.

“‘My lady! I am inconsolable’—(‘I know all about that!’ thought I)—‘but I can’t come to the concert. Our gipsy musicians have gone to Pest.’ (‘What do they want there?’ I asked.) ‘All the gipsy bands in the kingdom have assembled together for a grand competition. . . . Now, without gipsy music I can’t dance. Who can play me the “Bihari Kesergó,” I should like to know?’ (‘I will!’ I said.) ‘Ha! ha! ha! that wouldn’t do at all! What? one dancer and one violin-player! — it would be a mere farce.’

“Hereupon Esaias popped in. Seeing through the window that I was no longer alone, he took heart and came in. He had not dared to do so before.”

Here I intervened: “If I am not very much mistaken, I know this dear Esaias of yours. It once happened to him, while still a student, that he sat beside the priest’s daughter at supper. He did not dare to say a word to her; but in the afternoon he went up the church tower and courted the young lady from one of the windows.”

“It is possible that it was he. I, however, made both the gentlemen stay, that at least the coffee and ‘cowl-skippers’113 might not be wasted. They did not wait to be asked twice, but ate with right good will. During the meal we fully discussed the best means of helping forward the stranded concert. Suddenly the dancing-master looked at his watch: ‘Gracious me, if it isn’t six o’clock! I must be off to give the children of the chief magistrate a dancing-lesson’— and with that he jumped up, kissed my hand, and pirouetted off.

113 A sort of dumpling.]

“Then Esaias also rose from the table, brushed the crumbs of the cowl-skippers from his coat, and said: ‘Blessing and peace be with you!’— This was always his parting formula. Such a salutation as ‘Your humble servant!’ or ‘I commend myself to your protection!’ nobody has ever heard from his lips — no, not even his superintendent; for Esaias is not humble and not your servant, and does not commend himself to anybody, nor will he tell a lie even as a matter of form.

“‘What! must you go too?’ I replied to his ‘blessing and peace.’ ‘You have no six-o’clock school this evening.’

“‘No; but why should I stay here if there’s to be no practice?’

“‘Must I, then, begin singing in my own house before a man?’

“‘It depends upon the man,’ replied Esaias.

“‘What am I to understand by that?’ I inquired, much astonished.

“‘What are you to understand by that?’ said he, striking the leg of his boot repeatedly with his pipe stem —‘what are you to understand by that? It is not very hard to understand, I should think. If a lawyer, a doctor, or a squire were to come to see you and amuse himself here with or without music, not a dog in the village would have anything to bark at; but if they saw the schoolmaster come here at six o’clock in the afternoon — if they saw him, I say, remain here last of all when the other guests were gone, then there would be such a stir in Israel that men would be ready to stone me.’

“‘Do I stand, then, in such evil odour as all that?’

“‘I did not say that you were in any evil odour at all.’

“‘It is true,’ he continued, ‘that there are as many names written in your album as in Charles Trattner’s almanack. That, however, does a pretty woman no harm. But me the Church would not forgive. If I get into evil odour, if I overstep the line, I shall be sent packing.’

“‘Then celibacy obtains among the Calvinists also?’

“‘Not celibacy, but we have the canonical prescriptions. A canonical offence is a very serious business for a Calvinist priest or schoolmaster. Let a man be a veritable John Chrysostom, and it will avail him nothing if he commit a canonical offence.’

“‘And you have never committed a canonical offence?’ I said to him.

“‘Never!’ he replied resolutely. And he grew quite red in the face. He was so proud of his virtue.”

“Why surely this is quite a new thing?” I interrupted —“a thing never known in the world before: a man who is virtuous, and not ashamed to confess it?”

“Quite unique, isn’t it? When I heard this I seized his hand and would not let him leave me. I could read from his eyes that it was the first time he had ever felt the pressure of a lady’s hand. ‘You have been candid,’ I said to him, ‘I will be candid also. You would never approach a woman whom you had not led to the altar. I know it. Then you shall lead me to the altar!’

“Even this did not seem to surprise him. His face remained as motionless as a statue.

“‘That is soon done,’ said he; ‘but respice finem! Man proposes, but ’tis an old dog that holds on. I am not like other men. I am a very difficult man to get on with. You can’t deal with me as with those who look through their fingers at the goings-on of their spouses. If I take you to wife, there must be an end to all this dancing and prancing and gadding about, and flirting and ogling. My wife will not have to go fasting, but she won’t be allowed any junketing. I don’t understand a joke. Do you see this cherry-wood pipe-stem? If I catch my wife at any piece of trickery, I’ll break this cherry-stem across her back — take my word for it.’”

I couldn’t help smiling at this. “And you, my dear, pretty ward, have actually taken the schoolmaster to husband, cherry-stem and all?”

“I should like to have taken him, but he didn’t surrender himself so easily. I assured him that I would submit myself to the most stringent discipline of virtue, and if I transgressed against him, I should not mind his beating me. But even that did not vanquish him. By no means whatever could he be brought to sit down beside me on the sofa. He even pushed back the chair on which he was sitting, when he saw that I was besieging him. At last he brought his big guns to bear upon me.

“‘Look now, my dear dame, I know very well that humorous habit of yours of never remaining long in one nest. You deal with your sweethearts on a sort of give-and-take system. You are here today and off tomorrow. Supposing now, that in the exercise of my marital authority, I were to inflict an edifying chastisement upon you for your flightiness, you might easily take it into your head to bolt, and there should I be left in the lurch for the finger of scorn to point at. A Calvinist schoolmaster cannot submit to the fate of an ordinary man. If my wife were to leave me, I should be expelled from the Church with contumely. Then I should have to flee. I should be as good as excluded from human society. Now, I am very well satisfied with my present condition. I have a fixed salary of six hundred florins in good hard cash, and my perquisites amount to about as much again. I live honourably, you see, and I cannot afford to stake everything on a throw of the dice.’

“Then I talked big also.

“‘Listen to me!’ I said. ‘I have capital sufficient to bring me in as much as your yearly income — that is to say, twenty-five thousand florins. I will make over the whole amount to you by way of a dower, and I am ready to forfeit it all in case I am unfaithful to you.’”

“And didn’t your Esaias capitulate even then?” I inquired of Bessy.

“He asked for three days to think about it. I immediately hastened to you to signify my desire that your guardianship might cease.”

“Then Esaias has still two days’ grace,” I said. “I hope and trust he may be inwardly illuminated to say no!”

“Then you do not approve of my determination?”

“I am a friend of truth, and I understand a little about prophecy too. It doesn’t matter to me if you surrender all your capital as a sort of shrift-money, and your house as well.”

“Such a man as he is worthy of it.”

“I’ll take your word for it. You are something of an expert in such matters! But one thing I strongly advise you to do: keep the garden attached to the house at your own disposition.”

“Why?”

“That you may have it planted full of cherry-trees. I know the natural history of the Calvinist-schoolmaster species. I know that what once he has promised he always performs. I also know the natural history of the lady with the eyes like the sea, and it is my belief that you will frequently give occasion for the employment of cherry-tree stems.”

At this the fair lady sprang from her chair, boiling over with rage.

“What a gross monster it is! Poet indeed! A pedantic lout is what I call you! They’ve done very well to lock you up. This is the last time that we shall ever talk to each other.”

And with that she went, or rather flounced, away.

But I gave a great sigh of relief.

“May she keep her word, and never, never come back again!” I said.

* * * * *

One of the first things I saw, on my release from prison, was the announcement in the newspapers of the solemnization of the marriage. The bank also informed me by letter that the amount there standing to the credit of my ward had been transferred to her husband’s name.

Well, at last Bessy had got the ne plus ultra of husbands. For, really, the man who has reached his two-and-thirtieth year without sinning against the canonical prescriptions must indeed be a superlative treasure in the eyes of a lady who knows how to appreciate the value of such renunciation.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/jokai/maurus/eyes-like-the-sea/chapter19.html

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