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

Chapter iv

Petöfi with Us — Plans for the Future — The Rape of the Brides — Amateur Theatricals — My Menshikov

I really imagined that I loved and was beloved. I was always a welcome guest at her ladyship’s house, and was a regular visitor on her “at home” days. On such occasions I learnt to know Bessy from another point of view. She was a musician also. She could play the fiddle. Whether she played artistically I really cannot say, for I don’t understand music, and couldn’t tell the difference between Paul Racz17 and Sarasate; but so much is certain, she knew all the cunning tricks and poses which I admired so much in the famous musicians of a later day. She could make arpeggios and pizzicatos like Ole Bull, fughe di diavolo like Reményi, and pianissimos like Sarasate. She could make her fiddle weep softly like Milanollo and Miss Terezina Tua, and she could lash it savagely with her fiddle-bow like the Russian Princess Olga Korinshka, or play with the instrument close up to ear like a gipsy primás.18 When she played she had the beauty of a demon; every limb was set in motion, her shoulders marked time, her bosom heaved, her body waved to and fro, her mouth smiled provocatively, her eyes sparkled; at one moment she softly caressed the fiddle with her bow, at another she flogged the strings unmercifully, and at the end of the performance she stood there with the pose of a triumphant Toreadrix. At such moments every one was fascinated by her; why, then, should I have been an exception?

17 A famous gipsy musician.]

18 The leader of a gipsy band.]

One day I got a letter from Petöfi, in which he informed me he was going to call upon us the following Sunday. I naturally skipped off to town at once, and showed the letter to all my acquaintances. It was a great event in our little town. Petöfi’s popularity in those days was great indeed; he was worshipped from one end of the kingdom to the other. His visit was regarded as an extraordinary distinction. On Sunday afternoon, therefore, half the population of the town had assembled on the island, where the landing-stage of the steamers now is. Bessy’s family was also there. All the religious persuasions were represented by the presence of the Benedictine priests and the Calvinist and Lutheran ministers. The captain of the civic train bands, with two lackeys in gold liveries; represented the magistracy; and Muki Bagotay was there on behalf of the county (he held some petty office or other), and maintained that he knew Petöfi very well. Congratulatory speeches had been got ready, and lovely hands were to present handsome bouquets to the coming guest. Petöfi, however, when he had crossed over the steamship bridge to the other side, troubled himself not one bit about the congratulatory mob, left in the lurch the lovely ladies with their bouquets, and the distinguished gentlemen with their speeches, and, dressed as he was in his short carbonari mantle, rushed straight towards me, threw his arms round my neck, knocked my hat from my head, and cried, “Why, Marksi! Is it you, you old scoundrel, Marksi!” (he never would call me by my proper name), and, with that, wrapping me in one-half of his mantle, he dragged me with him towards the town just as if he knew the way quite well (he had never been there before in his life). The windows of the chief thoroughfares of the town were adorned with flowers and with fair damsels, who had tricked themselves out in Petöfi’s honour, which, when he perceived, he thrust me down a side street, and so we got at last to our house by roundabout by-paths, on which we met not a single soul. My worthy mother received our dear guest most heartily, not because he was such a famous poet, but because he was my good friend. I had known him ever since we had been students together at Pápá, when they had called him “Petrovics.” Now, however, they added a syllable to his name, and called him “Petrekovics.” Nothing used to put Petöfi into such a rage as when anybody called him by his rejected family name. But even this he took in good part from my mother. He never even tried to put her right. “Let me always remain Petrekovics in your house!” he would say to her, as he kissed her hand. This was by no means his usual custom, the only other person whose hand he used to kiss was his own mother. The first question after that naturally was about his favourite dish. My mother herself looked after the cuisine, and the following day the whole family assembled to dinner — my brother Charles, my sister Esther, and my brother-in-law Francis Vály included.

We had scarcely risen from the table when a lackey in silver livery arrived from Bessy’s mother with a gold-edged letter for Petöfi, in which her ladyship invited him to her “at home” that evening. The entertainment was arranged in his honour. All the beauties and the notabilities of the town would be there together. I had naturally received a similar invitation some days before.

’Twas thus that Petöfi answered the messenger — his words are recorded in the family records: “Tell her ladyship that I am inconsolable at the impossibility of coming to her reception this evening; but this time I have come specially to visit my beloved Marksi, and will go nowhere else.”

The astonished lackey could scarcely grasp the meaning of this terrible reply. But my mother understood it right well, and said, “Noble young fellow!”

But I said nothing, for I candidly confess that in those days I worshipped a pretty girl far, far more than any man however famous, or any friend however good.

I tried, therefore, to explain the situation to my good friend. “I tell you what, though; that pretty girl is there about whom I wrote to you.”

“Then give yourself up to that pretty girl, but don’t sacrifice me to her likewise.”

“If you could only hear how splendidly she plays the fiddle.”

“Fiddle, do you say? Then don’t give yourself up to her either! You know there are three things in this world that I hate — horse-radish with milk, the critics, and after that, music.” (He could never be persuaded to listen to an opera.)

“But Tony Várady also plays the fiddle!” (I should explain that this young lawyer shared Petöfi’s room with him.)

“He fiddles, it is true, but it is useful to me.”

“How so?”

“In our neighbourhood dwells a rascally card-player, who comes home every night between two and three, and begins to sing. I immediately wake Tony and say to him, ‘Rise, and fiddle away at that fellow there!’ Then he begins to fiddle in a way that makes your hair stand on end, and your blood run cold, and in ten minutes our neighbour, falling upon his knees, sobs for mercy, and declares that he will leave off singing. However, from today I live no longer with Tony.”

“Have you quarrelled?”

“On the contrary, we are the best of friends. But I’ll tell you about that later on; let us now talk about serious things. What have you been doing since I last saw you?”

I showed him the MS. of “Hétköznapok.”19 It was just ready.

19 “Every-day Days.” One of the best, if not the best, of Jókai’s earlier works.]

“Why do you call it ‘Hétköznapok’?”

“In order that nobody may expect anything extraordinary in it.”

He turned over the leaves, but only read the headings of the chapters.

“Well, that was an original idea of yours, I must say, to choose mottoes from popular ballads for your chapter headings. I’ll take this with me to Pest, and get it published.”

“Nobody knows me.”

“You’re wrong. Bajza and Vörösmarty are inquiring about you. Your specimen composition has been much approved. I’ve squeezed twelve florins for it out of Emericus Vahot. Frankenburg was more liberal. He sends you fifteen for ‘The Island Nepean.’”

And Petöfi counted out the twenty-seven silver florins on to the table. It was my first honorarium. I fancied myself a Rothschild.

“This romance now shall be published by Hartleben.”

“Are you on good terms with him?”

“I don’t know the German fellow, but he’s the publisher of Ignatius Nagy’s romances, and Nagy shall recommend it to him.”

“But will Ignatius Nagy like to do it?”

“What! When I bring him such work as yours! He is a great enemy of mine, I know, but he is a man of honour.”

And with that he thrust my manuscript into his knapsack, but without locking it.

“And what else have you written?”

I produced another heap of papers.

“A play entitled Two Guardians.”

“And what do you want to do with it?”

“To compete for the Academy prize.”

“Don’t do that! I won’t allow you. You competed once, and they did not give you the prize, and yet two Academicians were on your side; don’t give them any more. Give your pieces to the theatre.”

I had nothing for it but to surrender.

“Now, I’ll take your piece to Szigligeti.20 He will at once recognise in you a dangerous rival, and for that very reason will have your piece brought out instantly. That’s the sort of man he is!”

20 Pseudonym of the eminent Hungarian dramatist, Joseph Szathmáry.]

I entrusted my piece to his care.

“And try to get up to Pest as soon as possible. Don’t go loafing about all your days in a village!”

“As soon as I have got through with my patvaria I’ll hasten to join you.”

“Get ready to go away at once. To-morrow I’ll take you with me to Gran.”

I was greatly astonished.

“To Gran! Why, what business have we there?”

“We go not to do business, but to rob. We must steal away Tony Várady’s bride for him. That is why we no longer live together.”

But now the members of my family had also a word to say.

Petöfi then related, quite calmly, that our common friend, the worthy lawyer, wished to take to wife the daughter of a landed proprietor at Gran. The girl’s parents were Catholics, the bridegroom was a Calvinist, they therefore would not permit the marriage. But the young people really loved each other. So there was nothing for it but to steal the bride.

The thing was quite clear. I could make no objection. When a man is poet and Protestant, girl-stealing in such a situation becomes a duty. Just then a great parliamentary strife was going on concerning mixed marriages. It was Guelph and Ghibelline over again. One had to choose one’s party.

So on the following day I really did set out with Petöfi to steal a girl for the benefit of a third friend. The affair succeeded beyond all expectation. We had no need of the darkness of midnight and scaling ladders, the mere appearance of Petöfi and myself at the bride’s house was sufficient; the parents gave way, and the priest united the two lovers. Yet for all that we always made much of our damsel-robbing adventure. And, indeed, it seemed likely to turn out a dangerous precedent. Example is contagious.

But I returned home with the guilty consciousness that I had absolutely spoiled the soirée. I expected that I should be pretty severely taken to task for it. How should I put things to rights again?

I discovered how to make amends, but it was not without great artfulness that I succeeded.

Our city was not only the capital of the county, but a fortress. Consequently one might frequently come upon vehicles in our streets which consisted of little more than a round chest on two wheels, crammed full of water-butts from the Danube, ammunition, bread, and sacks of meal, and between the poles of these conveyances were fastened a couple of human beings in garments of grey baize, with twenty-pound chains fastened to their legs. The creatures were called in plain Hungarian — slaves.21 You could hear the rattling of their fetters from afar. On certain days while the self-same creatures were suffering the flogging with sticks, which was part of their sentence, their woful cries resounded through the whole town. Thus the rattling of chains and the howls of woe were a sort of speciality in our town. And the sight of those starved faces too! From my childish years upwards this slave-life used to disturb my dreams.

21 They were prisoners condemned to penal servitude.]

I got up an agitation among the more enthusiastic of the youths and maidens of our town on behalf of the poor slaves. If the affair had succeeded, I should of course never have bragged about it; but as I failed in it, I may as well make a clean breast of it.

It was determined, at my suggestion, to invite Bessy’s mother to be the president of our philanthropic society. A deputation set off at once to her house, and, naturally, I was its spokesman. The distinction thus conferred upon her quite wiped out my former offence, and I was again taken into favour.

The first problem in any case was to establish our beneficent scheme on a sound, financial basis, and the simplest way of getting funds was by means of an amateur entertainment. Of this, too, I was the manager. With very great difficulty the programme was finally settled. Overture: Beatrice di Tenda. —“What’s the watchword? Death, torture, ruin, to the betrayers of the fatherland!” rendered by the glee club of the College. After that a flute duet from Lucia di Lammermoor, piped by the local musical society and a young lawyer. That was to be followed by a humorous recitation of my own: “Gregory Sonkolyi”; then came an exhibition of legerdemain by Muki Bagotay; and last of all, as pièce de résistance, Bessy’s fiddling.

It was a terrible business to bring all this about. We had rehearsals every day at Bessy’s house. I was very busy just then. I ought to have been working as an articled clerk, but I’m quite sure I never looked at a law-book. At last, however, it was possible to fix the day on which the concert would come off.

Meanwhile, the time was approaching when I ought to have passed my patvaria, and gone through my jurateria. My elder brother Charles wrote to a well-known lawyer at Pest, who had a large practice, to take me into his office as a juratus. And as winter was also drawing nigh, and I was about to go far, far away into a strange world, my good and ever-blessed mother was busying herself about my outfit. Nowadays people will regard it as a fable, but say it I must, that all the linen I wore during the time when I was a juratus was spun by my mother’s own hands. I verily believe that that shirt, spun by a mother’s hand, and worn by me, was the magic web which turned aside so many of the blows of fate.

A tailor and a weaver lived in some of the smaller houses we possessed; we had no need of the help of strangers. My mother also provided me with a good winter overcoat.

It was really a capital overcoat, which covered me down to the very heels, a real Menshikov overcoat, very fashionable forty years later, but in those days worn by nobody but the porters of the Benedictine Order.

When I appeared at the amateur rehearsals at Bessy’s house in this prematurely born Menshikov, a circle was instantly formed round me, and every one asked me, with ironical congratulations, where I had had it made. Was it possible to get the fellow of it? Bessy even remarked that there was room for two in it, and I was not a bit offended with her.

When I withdrew (a letter, just arrived from Pest, called me home), I scarcely had time to close the door behind me, when I heard an outburst of merriment inside. When, however, I had got out into the street and turned round to have a last look at the house I had left behind me, lo and behold! all the windows were filled with groups of smiling faces, amongst which I saw Bessy’s face also. “They are all in a very good humour today,” I thought to myself.

Hastening home, I found there the letter from the Pest lawyer, in which he informed me, with official brevity, that there was a vacant place for a juratus in his office, which I might occupy. If, however, I did not come and claim it within three days, the vacant place would be given to some one else. The amateur entertainment had been fixed for Sunday, and it was now Tuesday. If I am not there by Friday, another will sit in my place. But what will become of the concert? Ought I to leave Bessy in the lurch — so faithlessly?

And how about the poor slaves?

Perhaps the lawyer at Pest would make a bargain with me and give me a couple of days’ grace? I sat down to reply to him: “Worshipful Mr. Advocate — I feel in duty bound to say, in reply to your honourable communication ——” Yes, but what? I must tell him some lie or other. Nay, not a lie, only a freak of fancy. A sudden illness? No, that’s no joke. An uncompleted piece of law business, which I must finish for my old chief? The Pest lawyer will never believe that. What pretext could I hit upon to steal a little more time?

While I was still biting my pen, my mother came into the room, and said to me: “Where have you been, my dear son?”

I said I had been at Bessy’s house.

Then she said: “Now, tell me, my darling, why do you run after these great people? Don’t you see that they are only making fun of you?”

Something like a cold ague fit ran down my back.

Hadn’t I myself seen and heard them laugh at me, and didn’t know it? and here was my mother who had neither seen nor heard it, and yet she knew it!

Not another word did I say, but I went on with my letter . . . “that I will come to Pest at once tomorrow morning, and take the place of juratus offered by you.”

I then showed my mother both letters, whereupon she rewarded me with that blessed smile of hers which has made her face so unforgettable to me.

She immediately packed up my belongings and placed in my hand what little money she had put by, so that I might not want for anything in the expensive capital. I wanted to write to Bessy with an apology for my sudden departure.

“Don’t go scribbling to them,” said my mother; “I’ll go myself tomorrow to her ladyship and tell her what has happened.”

The following afternoon I was sitting on the steamer, and in three days I arrived at Pest. . . . And for this sudden change of fortune I had to thank my Menshikov alone.

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