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

Chapter iii

My Masterpiece and My Hut

In the later stages of the painting we could converse. Indeed, conversation is necessary for completing one’s study of one’s subject, and prevents, besides, the constraint of sitting from becoming too tiresome.

“Have you read the poems of Petöfi?”12

12 The Burns of Hungary.]

“Oh, at our house we read nothing.”

“Why not?”

“Because those who come to see us bring no books with them.”

“Then don’t you get any newspaper?”

“Oh, yes, the Journal des Demoiselles; but it’s a frightful bore.”

“A Hungarian paper would be better, the Pesti Divatlap, for instance.”

“I’ll tell my mother to order it. You write for it sometimes, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“What?”

“The description of a desert island among the sedges.”

“Have you ever been on this desert island?”

“No; I only imagine it.”

“What’s the good of that?”

“It’s part of a romance I’m working at.”

“Ah, so you write romances! Will you put us into them?”

“Oh, no! Romance writing does not consist in merely copying down all that one sees and hears about one.”

“I should like to know how you set about it?”

“First of all I think out the end of the story.”

“What, you begin at the end?”

“Yes. Then I create the characters of the story. Then I deal out to these characters the parts they must play, and the vicissitudes they must go through down to the very end of the story.”

“Then, according to that, none of it is true?”

“It is not real, perhaps, but it may be true, for all that.”

“I don’t understand. And how much time do you take to write a story? I suppose it will come out?”

“Certainly.”

“Ah, yes, ’tis an easy thing for you to do! You have a rich aunt at Ó Gyalla, and you’ve only got to say a word to her and she’ll get your book printed for you. I suppose you’ve only got to ask her?”

“I shall not tell my rich aunt a word about it.”

“Then you’ll get your book printed at Fani Weinmüller’s, I suppose. Now listen, that won’t do at all. I knew an author who published his own book and went from village to village, and persuaded every landed proprietor to buy a copy from him. That is a rugged path.”

“My romance will not be one of those which the author himself has to carry from door to door; it will be one of those for which the publisher pays the author an honorarium.”

She absolutely laughed in my face.

And after all, when you come to think about it, surely it is somewhat comical when a person comes forward and barefacedly says, “Here, I’ve written something in which there is not one word of truth, and nevertheless I insist upon people reading it, and paying me for writing it.”

“Do you fancy, Miss Bessy, that Petöfi was not paid for his poems? He got two hundred florins for ‘Love’s Pearls.’”

“‘Love’s Pearls’! And pray what are they?”

“Lovely poems to a beautiful girl.”

“And did he get the girl?”

“No, he did not.”

“Well, now, that is a nice thing. A fellow courts a girl, puts his feelings into verse, finally gets a basket13 from her, and then demands that this basket should be filled for him with silver pieces.”

13 The Hungarian “Kosarat kapni,” like the German “einen Korb bekommen” (to get a basket), is the equivalent of our “to get a flea in one’s ear,” i.e., “a rejection.”]

The same day I sent her Petöfi’s “Love’s Pearls,” and his “Cypress Leaves” also.

I resumed my portrait painting three days afterwards, and immediately asked her whether she had taken up “Love’s Pearls.”

“Oh, yes; I took them up to dry flowers in them.”

“But I suppose you’ve just dipped into the ‘Cypress Leaves’?”

“I don’t like such things. I always burst into tears; and then my nose gets quite red.”

I did not pursue the subject further.

Miss Bessy hastened, however, to sweeten my bitter disappointment with the delightful intelligence that, at my suggestion, mamma had at once subscribed to the Pesti Divatlap, and for six months, too.

I was there when the postman brought the first four copies of the paper. In those days every paper had to be sent through the post in an envelope, postage stamps had not yet been invented. . . .

After the solemnity of breaking open the envelope, the assembled womankind naturally looked to see if there were any pictures, especially pictures of the fashions.

Was it not called “Divatlap”?14 And a fashionable journal it really was. That worthy, high-souled patriot, Emericus Vahot, was labouring with iron determination to make fashion a national affair.

14 Fashionable journal.]

“Well, whoever wore that might exhibit herself for money!” That was the universal verdict of the ladies. They alluded to one of the fashion patterns.

The illustrated supplement to the second number was Gabriel Egressy as Richard III., in the dream scene, surrounded by spectres; the picture was sketched by our countryman Valentine Kiss.

Her ladyship asked me which was the head of the principal figure, and which the feet. And I must confess that I myself could not quite make out how Richard III. had got his head between his knees.

With the illustrated supplement to the third number, however, they were quite satisfied. It was Rosa Laborfalvy15 as Queen Gertrude, by Barabás, a work of real artistic merit. This interested the ladies greatly.

15 Jókai’s future wife, as will be seen in the sequel.]

“They say she has such wonderful eyes that there’s nothing like them anywhere,” said Miss Bessy.

The logical consequence of this should have been a contradiction accompanied by a flattering compliment on my part; but all at once it was as if something so squeezed my throat that I absolutely could not get the courtly expression out anyhow. “I have never seen her,” I replied.

At the end of the fourth number was a lithograph representing a slim, youthful figure, and beneath it was written the name, Alexander Petöfi. It was one of the best sketches of Barabás. It is the one absolutely faithful portrait of the immortal poet. As such he was known by all those who lived with him, that eye gazing forth into the far distance, that mouth opened prophetically, those hands crossed behind him as if he would hide something in them. The whole portrait seems to say, “I will be Petöfi”; all the other portraits say, “I am Petöfi.”

This picture produced a great impression upon the ladies, for the appearance of a lithographed portrait in a journal was a great event. In those days there were none of the beneficent penny papers, whose right of existence is considered amply justified if the frontispiece represents some one battering an old woman’s head in with an axe. Only great and famous patriots enjoyed the distinction of figuring on title-pages, and photography was not yet invented. . . . The appearance, then, of Petöfi’s portrait in an illustrated supplement of the Divatlap created quite a sensation. . . . The companion at once undertook to read the book of verses which had been sent to the house by me. Bessy, on the other hand, desired to know whether she would find anything of mine in the portion of the journal devoted to the Belles–Lettres. Immediately afterwards she actually hit upon it. It was a portion of my romance, which appeared there under the title of “Az ingovány oáza”—“The Oasis of the Fens.”

“Well, I mean to read this at once.”

I gave her plenty of time to do so, for I only appeared again after the lapse of several days.

She really had read it. It was the first thing she told me.

“Now I am curious to know,” she added, “what was the beginning of the story and what will be the end? You know, don’t you?”

“How can I help knowing?”

“But I don’t understand the title. Where does the ‘oiseau’16 come in?”

16 The Hungarian oáza (oasis) and the French oiseau are pronounced so very much alike, that the ill-instructed Bessy, who had never heard of the former, not unnaturally confounded them.]

I explained to her that the “oáz” was not a flying fowl, but a plot of verdure concealed in the desert.

“Then why don’t you write ‘island’?”

She was right there.

“Apropos of island,” she continued, “I often see you from the verandah of our island summer-house walking up and down in front of our garden; yet you never give us so much as a glance, though we make noise enough.”

“That is quite possible. At such times I am immersed.”

“Immersed in what?”

“In working at my romance.”

“Working and walking at the same time?”

“Such is my habit. I work out the whole scene in my head first of all, down to the smallest details, so that when I sit down it is a mere mechanical a-b-c sort of business.”

“Then according to that, when you are marching with rapid strides up and down that long path, you neither hear nor see anything?”

“Pardon me, I see grass, trees, flowers, birds, stumps of trees, and huts of reeds overgrown with brambles. Amongst all these I weave my thoughts like the meshes of a spider’s web. And I hear, too. I hear the piping of the yellow-hammer, the twittering of the titmouse, the notes of the horn from distant ships, the humming of the gnats, and they all have something to whisper to me, something to tell me. A buzzing wasp lends wings to my imagination; but if I meet a human face, the whole thing flies out of my thoughts, and a single ‘your humble servant’ will dissolve utterly my fata Morgana, until I turn back and reconstruct the ends of my spider’s-web among the freshly-discovered reed-built huts, tree-trunks and trailing flowers, when the well-known voices of the dwellers in the wilderness bring back to me again my scattered ideas; then I retreat into the little wooden summer-house in our garden, and there, disturbed by nobody, I transfer to paper the images which stand before my mind.”

And Bessy, contrary to my expectation, didn’t laugh at this elucidation. On the contrary, she had grown quite serious. The expression of her eyes now resembled the expression which I had given them in her portrait.

“And this gives you pleasure?” she whispered. “It is just as if a man were to set off dreaming after taking care beforehand that all his dreams should turn out beautiful.”

“Mr. Muki Bagotay,” announced the footman.

I took up my hat. I could not endure that fellow. He had already enjoyed everything in reality which existed for me only in imagination. . . .

The little wooden hut there in the orchard on the Danubian islet (whether it is still there I know not) was the most splendid palace in which I ever dwelt. ’Twas there I wrote my first romance. It is true that it had to put up with a lot of criticism, that first romance. What, indeed, did a young mind which knew nothing of men or of the world understand about romance writing? And yet I loved my first work, just as much as a man loves his first-born, though it may be deformed by all sorts of physical and spiritual defects. How plainly I still see before me those large, wide-spreading Reineclaude trees, crammed with fruit ripe to bursting, which covered the little hut. A little farther off was an apple-tree covered with blood-red fruit, and then a second with taffety white, and a third with velvety apples. From the open door of the hut one could see right along the overgrown path, which was bordered on both sides by bowery vines. When the warm blood-red rays of summer pierced through the meshes of the foliage, it seemed as if every shadow was of green-gold. Far away on the banks of the Danube could be heard the delusive echoes from the military band in the “English Garden,” whilst closer at hand the yellow-hammer piped, and a frog here and there croaked in the irrigating trenches. I was writing the hardest part of my romance — the love part, that most undiscoverable of all unknown worlds. One may write down a description of the marsh world from the imagination, but not a description of the world of love. If the heart has not already discovered it, the head can tell us nothing at all about it.

All at once the green-gold shadows were lit up by something bright. She was standing there in the door of my hut, dressed in a white frock, with a straw hat fastened to two blue ribbons hanging upon her arm, and her dishevelled locks floating down her shoulders. For a moment I fancied that the dream-shapes of my imagination had taken bodily form. Then her ringing peal of laughter assured me that a living person stood before me.

“How did you come here?”

“How? Why, by walking over the soft grass, of course.”

“Alone?”

“Alone! Why not? Whom should I have brought with me, I should like to know? I suppose I may come to a neighbour’s garden unattended?”

It was quite true that our gardens were only about a hundred feet apart, lying one on each side of the common path, which ran right through the island.

“You don’t seem to give me a very hearty reception,” pouted she, as she entered my hut.

My head began to swim.

“On the contrary, I am overjoyed at the honour you do me, and I’ll gather for you at once some of our princely plums.”

Nobody else had such plums then, and it was a good excuse, besides, for quitting the hut.

“I did not come for the sake of your princely plums; I filch them long before you ever taste them. I have come now to see how you make up your romance.”

I pointed out to her that here was the paper and there the pen, and all a man had to do was to take up the pen, and it went on writing of its own accord.

“Then you don’t peep into any book first of all?”

“You can see that I am provided with no tools of that sort.”

“Well, now, sit down, and I’ll sit down beside you and see how you write.”

And then, not waiting for an invitation, she sat down at the end of my sofa, driving me into the dilemma of sitting down by the table, willy-nilly, likewise. I may mention that my hut was so narrow that the table reached from the door to the window.

“I can’t write a word, though, at this moment,” said I.

“Why? Because I’m here?”

“Naturally.”

“Then read me what you have just written.”

“There’s a lot of it.”

“So much the better. I can remain here all the longer.”

“Won’t they miss you at home?”

“They know that I am sure to turn up again.”

Vanity is the horn by which one may always catch hold of a man. It flattered me to read what I had written, whoever the listener might be. In other parts of the kingdom I had already gained applause with my recitations, but nobody in my own narrow little town had ever heard me speak. Nemo profeta in patria.

And Bessy was a very appreciative audience. You could read from her face the effect I produced and the interest she took. She rested her face on her hand, smoothed down her hair, and fixed her attention that she might listen the better. She seemed quite frightened at the exciting scenes, her eyes and lips opened wide. I do not say this to praise myself, but simply as a justification of the fact that in those days I could recite with considerable emphasis. In one place, however, my voice began to falter.

“Well, what is it? Can’t you read your own writing?”

“Yes — no, I mean. I think we had better leave off here?”

“Why? You’ve come to the most interesting part.”

“I don’t want to read it to you.”

“Why? Do you mean to say you write such things as a girl ought not to know?”

“No, no! Anybody may read it except myself — before you.”

The girl laughed, but there was something bitter in her laugh too.

“Oh, don’t be anxious on my account, pray! We read, at school, things of which you have no idea. It is an old institution among us that every girl when she marries shall write a letter to her school friends on the very day after her wedding. We have a whole collection of such letters.”

“And do you mean to tell me that you have promised to increase this collection?” I cried, with all the indignation of my youthful mind.

The girl must have guessed my anger from my face, for she cast down her eyes and said, in a low voice: “It depends upon whose I shall be.”

Immediately afterwards she laughed uproariously: “You may read your love-scene before me.”

I answered more firmly than ever: “I will not read it before you.”

She understood and stared at me.

“You fear, perhaps, that I shall take it for a declaration? You think, perhaps, that I shall laugh at you in consequence?”

“No! You will not laugh at me.”

“Then what are you afraid of?”

“I do not fear, I wait.”

“Wait! For what?”

“I am waiting till I count for something in the world; at present I am a mere cipher.”

“One who is born a man can never be a mere cipher.”

“Look now! This wooden booth is at present the whole of my property, this little pile of paper my whole claim upon the world; but in my soul there is a vigorous flame to which I can give no name. This flame would suffice to make a man a pretender to a throne, but it is not sufficient to make him propose to a girl.”

“But you know that I am rich.”

“And I am still richer, for I dine deliciously off a crust of bread, and I sleep sweetly on a bed of straw.”

“Well, and that pleases me too. I like a crust of bread and a bed of straw. You do not know me. A man might make a she-devil of me, though he built a temple in my name straight off, enshrined me on the altar, and knelt down before me. But he whom I truly loved might make an angel of me. I could be happy anywhere: in a shepherd’s hut, a strolling player’s tent, at a soldier’s bivouac, in a schoolmaster’s clay cabin. I would dream of luxury on my bed of straw.”

And with that, she threw herself at full length on my bare sofa, and clasped her hands above her head.

Oh, what distracting loveliness!

Was it a blessing or a chastisement on the part of guiding Providence that I was able, at that moment, to see with my soul as well as with my eyes? This girl had in a few words unfolded before me the whole of her coming destiny. . . . I sat down at her feet by the side of the bare old sofa, and looked into her eyes.

Very softly I said to her: “She whom I love will not be my slave, but my queen. I will not filch my happiness, but win it. And she to whom I shall dedicate my heart shall be crowned by me with an aureola of glory, just as the rich of this world load their darlings with pearls and diamonds. The lady of my heart must be honoured by all the world — but most of all by myself.”

At these words the half-closed eyelids opened. The girl began to sob violently, leaped to her feet, threw her arms round my neck, kissed me, and ran away.

And I looked after her like one that dreams, while the shrubs and the vine-leaves concealed her vanishing form. The yellow-hammer cried in my ear, “Silly boy, silly boy!” And immediately there occurred to my mind the story of the young man whose confessor gave him a bundle of hay to eat as a penance for a sin unachieved.

And now, too, when I stand before the big silly bookcase, which is filled with nothing but my own works, I often think, would it not have been better if they had none of them been ever thought out? And instead of writing so much for the whole world, would it not have been better if I had written for my own private use, just so much as would go within the inside cover of a family Bible? Nowadays, a whole street in my native town is called after my name: would it not have been better if all I had there were a simple hut?

But no! I willed it so, and if it were possible for me to go back to the diverging cross-roads of my opening life, I would tread once more in the self-same footprints that I have left so long behind me.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/jokai/maurus/eyes-like-the-sea/chapter3.html

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