When she again lifted up her face, her eyes were like a somnambulist’s gazing fixedly in the moonlight. They appeared absolutely dark-blue, so much were the irises distended. Her voice was quite low.
“The whole picture is still vividly before my eyes. The greater part of the town was in flames. It must have been evening. The sound of the clock in the Calvinist church tower mingled with the peal of the alarm-bells. The clock struck eight, the alarm-bells five. The people counted the strokes: exactly thirteen. The sun shone no longer, but the whole vault of heaven was alight; the fiery reflection of the thick clouds of smoke made a hellish daylight, and in the midst of this terrible illumination, like some dread idol, rose the tower of the Calvinist church, with its large copper roof, and its spire with the great gold ball and star. Star and ball glowed like phantoms from the world beyond the grave. The crackling of the fire roared down the howling of the beasts and the cries of ten thousand terrified men. In that part of the town where the carters dwelt, carts, horses and oxen, and their owners were all huddled together in one dense mass. To move was an impossibility. Then upon this howling, cursing, blaspheming multitude came pouring that mass of men which had fought its way from the banks of the Danube through the burning town, with the terrifying cry, ‘The enemy has attacked the town!’ By this time the alarming rumour had gained such proportions that there were those who said they had actually seen the enemy’s soldiers entering the town. ‘They are burning, they are plundering — fly! fly!’ Some even exclaimed, ‘They are about to bombard the captured town from the fortress!’ All at once the whole street, as far as the Waag bridge, was filled with flying vehicles. In my terror I had clutched hold of the mud-splasher of one of these vehicles as it came tearing along, and ran along after it till there was scarcely a breath left in my body. My light buskins were completely worn off my feet and full of gravel. I had no time to stop and empty them. This particular carriage had excellent horses in it, and the coachman did not spare his whip. Two women, dressed in peasants’ hoods, were sitting in this carriage. I was astonished that they should wrap themselves up so closely in their hoods, and cover their heads with big kerchiefs, when such an infernal heat was blazing all around us, from the earth, from the sky, and from every side of us.
“The coachman reached the Waag bridge safely before the other fugitive carriages had blocked up the way. At the entrance they had to stop, for there the custom-house officers demanded the bridge-tolls. That the whole town was in flames mattered not a button to them, all they wanted was their tolls. One of the women handed them an Austrian bank-note for 100 florins. The toll-collector could not give change. A queer sort of peasant woman, truly, who had no smaller change than a bank-note for 100 florins! While they were haggling about it, it occurred to me that I was now wearing my genteel clothes, and that in the pockets there was sure to be a silver tizes76 for any beggar I might chance to meet on my way. So I went up and said to the peasant women: ‘I’ve got a tizes which I’ll give to the toll-collector; all that I ask is that you will take me in your carriage — there’s room for me beside the coachman. I don’t mind where you take me.’ At this, one of the women called to the coachman: ‘Don’t let that girl get up, we won’t have her.’ Then they told the toll-collector that he might keep the 100-florin note if he couldn’t give them change, if only he would let their coachman go on. I was horrified at such inhumanity. What a heartless woman it must be who, in such a time of peril, could refuse a fugitive girl a place in her carriage, and who, rather than do so, preferred to sacrifice a bank-note for 100 florins, peasant though she was! In my indignation I tore the big muffling clout from the head of the peasant woman and discovered her face. And now my blood froze to ice. I recognised my own mother! ‘Mother, dear mother!’ I cried, ‘don’t you know me? I am your own little girl, Bessy!’ Then my mother, pulling up the collar of her mantle over her face, said, in a simulated peasant voice: ‘Be off! Don’t bother us! I don’t know the girl. I’m not your mother. Let go my kerchief!’
76 The tenth part of a florin.]
“I thought I was going mad. My own mother wouldn’t know me! She wouldn’t let me get into her carriage. Like lightning the thought flashed through my mind that she it was whom the people were cursing so. No doubt they were cursing her unjustly, but in such times as these that mattered little. Whomsoever the popular fury points out is condemned already. I could not betray my own mother. I hastily threw my silver coin to the toll-collector that they might let the carriage go on. I thought that if once we got beyond the bridge, and my mother had no further fear of pursuit, she would take me into the carriage. So catching hold of the back part of the vehicle, I ran on beside the carriage till we had got beyond the trenches of the fortress and out upon the highway. Then I again began to supplicate, so far as my gasping voice would allow me: ‘Mother, dear, good mother! take me into the carriage; I am dropping. I can go no farther.’ They would not hear me. They only cursed and scolded: ‘Be off! Decamp!’ And when I still persisted in clinging on, they at last seized my fingers, which were still clutching the splasher, violently wrenched them off, and gave me a rough push so that I fell at full length into the highway. Then the carriage rolled on farther.
“I had held out till then, but now my strength failed me. I trembled so that I could no longer stand upon my legs. Utterly crushed in mind and body by the sufferings of that terrible day, I dragged myself on my knees to the edge of the wayside ditch. My instinctive fear of death told me that I must avoid the middle of the road if I didn’t want to be trampled to death. There then I lay clinging to a roadside poplar, gazing apathetically at the dreadful scene. The fugitive vehicles dashed madly along the highway in threes and fours, colliding every moment. The cursing and swearing were something awful. Every now and then one conveyance overturned another into the ditch, and the women who were sitting in them screamed and cried most piteously. One coachman hit upon the foolhardy idea of forcing his way through the ditch into the open field, and others followed his example. They came so close to me as to all but run over me, and I had not sufficient strength left to draw up my legs out of reach of their revolving wheels.
“Then the blast of trumpets mingled with the hurly-burly. A regiment of Hussars was trying to cut its way through the fugitive carriages with a convoy of hay-waggons, which, as was explained to me later on, the Commandant of the fortress was transferring from the burning town to the village of Izsa across the Waag. The commanding officer was cursing and swearing, and striking all the coachmen he met with the flat of his sword for stopping his soldiers’ way. ‘Damned rascals! instead of putting out the fire, you all take to your heels. What the devil is the matter with you? There’s no enemy behind you! Would that the souls of your ancestors could revivify you!’
“The voice seemed familiar to me, but the face I had never seen before. A spiral moustache, a French beard, a Hussar uniform, and a plumed hat — I had never seen that figure before.
“Thus he appeared before me like the dragon-slaying hero of a fairy tale.
“Hitherto, of all those who scurried past me, not one had noticed the wretched creature lying in the ditch. Some girl or other quite past help, they thought, perhaps. Nobody took any notice of me.
“This officer did notice me. In the midst of the greatest turmoil he perceived a woman lying beneath his horse’s feet. He hastily reined in his charger, and called me by my name. ‘My lady Elizabeth! how ever did you come here? In Heaven’s name, what has befallen you?’
“I recognised him by his mode of addressing me. There was only one man who used to address me in this way, the man who taught me my rôle at those famous amateur theatricals that you remember.
“‘Mr. Bálványossi! Mr. Director!’ I stammered, in my joy.
“‘No, no! Captain Rengetegi is my name. Why, where is your mother? Run away? She did well. Get up, my lady, into my carriage, and I’ll take you now to a place of safety.’
“‘I cannot get up.’
“Then he hastily dismounted from his horse, gave his bridle to his orderly, went up to me, raised me in his arms, carried me to his carriage, and laid me down there among sweet-smelling hay.
“I felt just as if I had been placed in Paradise.
“Then he threw his mantle over me. It was cold outside now, and a strong wind was blowing.
“But his care for me went even further than that.
“‘There is food in my knapsack, lady Elizabeth. I suppose you have had no supper today? Take whatever you find there. There’s some drink, too, in my flask. It will do you good. You have nothing more to fear. The finger-pointing virgin still stands there on the bastions of our fortress.’
“Then he mounted his horse again, and continued commanding his men loudly and authoritatively to force their way through the crush of carts and carriages with their convoy of hay. I fancied that I saw before me an archangel.
“I didn’t wait to be asked twice. As soon as I was able to get hold of the knapsack of victuals, I stuffed myself indiscriminately with all it contained — ham, cake, rolls. I gorged like a wild beast broken loose from a menagerie. I verily believe that if my bliss in Heaven had depended upon it, I would have renounced it for that couch of soft straw and those greedily devoured delicacies.
“When I had satisfied my appetite as I had never done before, I unscrewed the top of the flask and put it to my mouth. I didn’t taste what was in it, but I gulped and gulped so long as I had any breath in my body, as much as my thirst craved. I fancy it must have been brandy. When I couldn’t drink any more I looked all about me. The burning town was a grand illumination; in the midst of it was the Calvinist church tower — only it was now not one tower, but three. The silly thing was dancing a pas seul, and wagging its head now to the right, and now to the left, and all the people, and the horses, and the coachmen, and the hay-carts were leaping and dancing, like wedding-guests considerably the worse for liquor.
“When next day I awoke out of a twenty-hours’ sleep, I found myself in the room of a peasant’s house. Two men were holding a consultation over me — the camp-surgeon and ‘he.’ ‘How do you find yourself, lady Elizabeth? You are in my little room.’
“So ever since then I have been the lady Elizabeth.”
With these words Bessy rushed to the edge of the steep rock, crossed her two hands over her breast, and looked over her shoulder at me.
“I have now told you everything, and you must judge me. You have no need to push me. Give but a signal with your finger and I’ll put an end to myself!”
Horrified, I grasped her hand, and snatched her away from the dizzying rocky ledge.
“Do not tempt God! Be reasonable!” And, not without some little force, I made her sit down by the hot embers.
“But do you call this life?”
“Come, come, calm yourself! Look, these armed men are close upon us!”
They were not gendarmes. They were two worthy foresters belonging to the domain of the Forests of Diosgyör — a grey-bearded old man with a youthful assistant.
No hostile intentions had brought them thither. They could see, too, that our picnic beside the fire was a very innocent diversion. In the album left upon the rock was my unfinished landscape.
They greeted us cordially, and I returned their greeting in like manner. I asked the elder man whether I was injuring any one’s proprietorial rights by making a fire with other people’s wood. If so, I said, I would make good the trespass. To which the old man replied that he had no quarrel with me on that score. The stuff was there for the poor man to gather, and he cited the classical German ballad in which the evil-minded forester robbed the peasant of his bundle of faggots. He must needs be a lover of letters, then!
Then he told us why they had come.
“We perceived the smoke from below, and knew, therefore, that there were visitors on the Precipice Stone. We thought it our duty to come up. Wolves are about in the forest. We wished to tell you so.”
“I thank you for your great kindness; but, from what I am told, wolves will not attack a man.”
“But they’ve become very aggressive since they discovered that the Government has confiscated all muskets, leaving only a pair or two with us. They avoid men in the day time, I know; but at dark or in a snowstorm they are very impudent.”
“We do not intend to remain here till evening. I only wanted to finish the drawing, for the sake of which I scrambled up hither.”
“But I would call your attention, sir, to the fact that we shall have a fall of snow here before night. I know the signs of the weather. When such a vast mist lies over the country in the morning, and then rises suddenly, and is quickly followed by darkness, then we may expect a snowstorm the same day. That is an old experience of mine.”
“We will hasten home.”
“Do you live at Tordona, or at Malyinka?”
“I live at Tordona.”
“God bless you, sir. I know every one there.”
He didn’t ask who I was. We shook hands, and with that the pair of them went on their way.
“Was it worth while creeping into the cave for this?” said Bessy, when the foresters had withdrawn.
“There are men who can face a great danger and hide away from a little one.”
“And you think, then, that our friend there is a fire-eater? — I thought so too for a long time. It was no unexampled thing in those extraordinary times for men to become suddenly transformed. Those who were looked upon as mere carpet knights became veritable heroes; lawyers became colonels: war has an ennobling influence on so many types of character. I really believed that Rengetegi had changed his whole nature with his name. When others had to be aroused, there was no such orator as he. I was absolutely proud that we belonged to each other. When the Austrian troops invested the fortress, and hurled the first bomb into the market-place, the whole of our social life was suddenly turned upside down. There was now no such thing as etiquette. The families of great magnates left their houses (those, that is, whose houses were not burnt down already), pitched their tents in the Gipsy-field and dwelt there. The guns of the Monostor batteries did not carry so far as that. In the barracks, moral law disappeared. An officer was a great personage then, and to walk about the streets leaning on his arm was a much-coveted glory. Whether the lady on his arm was his wife was not the question — he was a fine fellow, a gallant fellow. That was the main thing. And if I met an acquaintance I introduced Rengetegi as my future husband. Every one knew that I had begun a suit against Muki Bagotay. But where were the courts, the advocates, the judges? — every one was either wearing a sword or serving a gun. When people asked me where I lived, I said ‘in the fortress!’ To dwell in the fortress was an enviable position. The rooms there were fire-proof. I really think that there were more who envied than pitied my fate. I also got familiar with the ways of a soldier’s life. They gave concerts, and I fiddled while Rengetegi declaimed. When the enemy was hurling away his bombs at the fortress, we took our band out on the ramparts, and there, with a great flourish of trumpets, we danced csárdáses. How that did aggravate the Germans! I had a great reputation as a rakétás77 dancer.”
I must frankly admit that I was not much edified by this turn in the conversation.
Bessy perceived that I was not well pleased with her doings in camp.
“Ah, my dear friend!” she said, “don’t fancy by any means that this episode of my life consisted entirely of rioting and revelry, there was a little intermezzo in it also. You know, of course, that, during the winter, things at Comorn were very bad indeed. The Commandant had not the capacity for the problem before him, which included the defence of such an important fortress. The garrison was lazy and mutinous. Whispers of treachery arose, and the chief of the artillery was deprived of his post. It was necessary to inform the Hungarian Government at Debreczin of the dangerous state of things at Comorn, and to beg for a new Commandant who should be a distinguished officer. But how was it possible to carry a message from Comorn to Debreczin? Who would undertake the risky enterprise of carrying the despatch from Comorn, through so many hostile armies, and bringing back the reply to it again? They had sent one messenger already, but he had been unable to get back. It was a joke which might cost a man his head.
“One evening, Rengetegi came to my little room in the barracks, and said: ‘Elizabeth, the hour has come for us to part!’
“I immediately thought that he was tipsy.
“‘You haven’t played me away at cards, I hope?’
“‘It is not you, but my own head that I have lost. I have accepted the mission to Debreczin. I’ve run my head against a wall, I know. It’s neck or nothing now. And they’ve pressed a thousand florins into my hand to make the way before me quite secure.’
“‘And you have lost it all at cards this evening?’
“‘How did you find that out?’
“‘I have made it my study. I know well those Hippocratic countenances. Well, and what are you going to do now?’
“‘Save my honour! I’ll go on my way without money.’
“‘Listen to me! I believe that you would be very glad to get out of this bombarded fortress — but I’ve no very ardent belief that you’ll ever come back again. I tell you what: give me the official despatch which has to be taken, and I’ll take care that it reaches the hands of the Government.’
“‘But how?’ inquired Rengetegi, immensely delighted.
“‘That I shall not tell you. I’ve been turning the matter over for some time. You have only a passive part to play here. You hide yourself in the village of Izsa, which the enemy has not occupied, because it lies within the range of the guns of the fortress, and wait for me there till I return from Debreczin with the answer of the Government.’”
“And Rengetegi actually accepted the proposal?” I inquired. I now began to admire this woman.
“He jumped at it. He gave me soul-stirring examples of the heroic women of history, who had gone to the wars along with their husbands. . . . He vowed that if I ever returned in safety from my mission he would henceforth call me ‘Queen Zenobia.’
“By the evening of the same day I was ready for the enterprise. I made Rengetegi dye his hair, moustache, and beard black, so that it was almost impossible to recognise him.”
“So that was your idea!” I cried.
“Then I stowed him away in a peasant’s hut at Hetény, with strict instructions not to emerge from his prison till I tapped at the door. Next I set to work to thoroughly disguise my own person. I was to be the leader of a gipsy band. Ah! if you could only have painted my portrait! Then, indeed, I really was lovely! I smeared my face with the juice of green walnut-shells till it was so black that I could pass for a gipsy among the gipsies themselves; I clipped my hair till it only reached down to my shoulders; I put on a jacket which some gentleman or other had worn threadbare before giving it away; hose that certainly were never intended for me, and a shirt that had never been washed: and so I transformed myself into as filthy a shape as ever led a wandering gipsy band.”
Here I could not forbear from pressing her hand. What sacrifices will not a woman make for her country and for her lover!
“But all this was a mere joke to what followed. I now had to get together a band. If they catch a gipsy alone they arrest him as a spy; but if he be one of a quartet he may go on his way rejoicing. I provided myself with a violoncellist, a clarinet-player, and a contra-bass. It was easy to persuade them to quit the bombarded town, into which the gentry who had robbed them of their poor hovels had forced them to go. Bread and meat were getting dearer and dearer, and there was nothing to be earned. Who had the heart to pay for music amidst such a frightful carnival?
“Thus, with my little band of three, I set out upon my long and uncertain journey on foot. Gipsies only ride in sledges when a magnate sends for them, and there was no such magnate in the whole district. If on our way we fell in with a cart laden with dried reeds taken out of the swamps for firewood, we would ask for a lift in it. But our legs nearly froze there, and we were glad to get down again and walk.
“In the very first village we came to, O-Gyalla, we fell in with a division of the Austrian investing army, German cuirassiers. The patrol brought us to the major in command. He was indeed a merciless personage. He roared at us, and asked us how we dared to leave the town. We naturally did not understand a word of German, and all four of us, in true gipsy fashion, began to raise objections at the same time: we could not remain in the town, the Honveds posted us right in front of the bombs, and made us play music at the very top of the bastions; all the cannons had fired at us, and that was a thing that gipsies couldn’t stand. ‘Was sagen die Spitzbuben?’ inquired the major of his auditor. The auditor understood Hungarian, and expounded unto him: ‘Nix da, you rascals! You are spies, and must be searched. Come! you must undress.’ I was not a little alarmed, I can tell you. Not on account of the despatches I had with me, I had put them in a place where they couldn’t be found; but they would discover that I was a woman, and that while my face and hands were gipsy, the rest of me was European — and then I should be lost. I hastily said something to the gipsies, and in an instant they out with their instruments and rattled off con fuoco the fine hymn ‘Gott erhalte!’ At this the frosty face of the old martinet thawed somewhat. ‘Well, well, you rascals,’ said he, ‘as you know what’s proper and decent, I won’t have you flogged this time, but be off at once and don’t remain in the village here. You mustn’t play here for anybody. Whoever has an itch for dancing just let him tell me, and I’ll give him dancing enough. There’s the whipping-post!’ Now the clarinet-player was a merry wag, and could not hide his light. ‘Devil bless your honour,’ said he, ‘you pay with big bank-notes.’ ‘Was sagt der Karl?’ asked the major. He says, ‘Gott soll segnen den grossen Herren, der zahlt mit grossen Bank78-noten!’ At this his honour also laughed. ‘But for all that you must pack yourselves off at once. You mustn’t stop till you reach Ersekuvar, but there you may play as long as you like.’ We kissed his hands and feet, and asked him to let us stay the night there. We were half frozen, we said. We had not a morsel in our stomachs: for a whole week we had only eaten ice and drunk water. But he knew no pity. They blindfolded us, packed us into a sledge, and a patrol of horse escorted us out of the village. Now, of course, it was my very dearest desire to get as soon as possible beyond the iron girdle by which the besieged fortress was girt about. If only he can get out into the wide world, the gipsy has no fear of going astray. He can fiddle his way through the whole of Europe if only he gives his mind to it. And so we made our way along the Danube, from one town to the other, and enjoyed to the full all the romantic adventures of a wandering gipsy’s life which abound in winter especially.”
78 “God bless the great gentleman, he pays with big bang-notes!”— a poor jest.]
“But,” interrupted I, “didn’t you come across Görgey’s Hungarian army, under whose protection you might have continued your journey?”
“Of course I did, but my instructions were to deliver my despatches to the head of the Hungarian Government, and nobody else, not even to a general. It is true that I might have gone on farther with the gallant Magyar army, where gipsy-music is always heartily welcomed. The Honveds, too, never lose their good humour; but, on the other hand, the main Magyar army was going towards Slavonia, whereas it was my object to get to Debreczin as soon as possible. So there was nothing for it but to go straight through the enemy’s lines till we reached the banks of the Theiss, when we could be once more in a friendly world.”
“But where did you conceal the despatches?” I asked.
“I stuck them inside the belly of my fiddle. Who would break the fiddle of a poor gipsy with which he earns his daily bread? The money we earned in one town was sufficient to hire a sledge to convey us to the next. Gipsies dwell on the skirts of every town. We made ourselves at home there, and they never asked us whence we came; but if we were cross-examined at any place, then we lied to such a degree that the difficulty was to find anybody to believe us. You recollect what a terrible winter it was last year?”
“I remember it very well. I was out all through it with my wife,” I said.
“How fine it would have been had we run across each other unexpectedly. I would have played a nocturne beneath your window. Ha, ha, ha! — The bitterest stage of the journey was from Kecskemet to the Theiss. There lay Jellachich,79 with all his army, occupying the towns of the great Hungarian plain one after the other. Here we had to creep through as best we could. As for me, I had the good fortune to play every evening before his Excellency the valiant Ban. He was very pleased with me. With my little band I managed to play the famous Croatian march, ‘Szláva, szláva, mu, mu, mu, Jelacsicsu nas omu,’ in quite a superior manner. I also knew the tune of the fine ‘Kolo’ dance, and absolutely won his Excellency’s heart with the melodious ‘Fanny Schneider’ polka. I might say that I was really quite spoiled. There was plenty of money and wine, and, despite my black face and my predominating odour of garlic, the enthusiasm rose so high that all the officers kissed me one after the other.”
79 The Ban of Croatia, who sided with the Austrians against Hungary. — TR.]
Bessy had no sooner uttered these words than she buried her face in her hands. Again I came to her rescue.
“Those kisses don’t count; you were a man then.”
“It was quite a gipsy paradise, but the mischief was we did not know how to escape from it. The chivalrous Ban told us not to try to run away, for in that case he would court-martial and shoot the lot of us. At night, when our duties were done, he locked us up in a little out-house, and placed an armed sentry before the door.
“One night we escaped up the chimney and over the roof of the neighbouring house; that is to say, three of us managed to get away, I and the clarinet-player and the contra-bass. The violoncello, however, could not be got out of the chimney, and the violoncellist declared that he would rather be stretched on the rack than leave his instrument in the lurch. So there we left him — to pay the piper. Besides, I had now not much need of my band; the Theiss was only a four hours’ journey off.
“I had heard from the officers that in the willow woods of the Theiss, in the neighbourhood of the ‘Szikra’ inn, some Hungarian guerillas were encamping. If only we could get among them!
“It was a good thing for us that sentinel duty was very laxly ordered in the camp of the Ban of Croatia. At the end of the town was a putri, or semi-subterranean clay hut of the kind in which field-labourers pass the night during the summer. The soldiers who had been sent out on forepost duty were sitting in this hut, and their muskets were all leaning against the door. One of the gipsies said: ‘Let us steal the muskets!’ The other said: ‘Steal your grandfather; I play with clarinets, not with muskets.’ I urged them to press forward. We were near to the sand-hills. Before us lay a savage, rugged plain, where one sand-hill followed hard upon another. Some of these hills were half hollowed out by the wind, and the hollows between them sparsely dotted with dwarf fir-trees. A ghostly region. The sides of these sand-hills were white, and the snow-fall on the top of them was still whiter; and every tree-trunk there is also white with its pendant branches80 bending down beneath the hoar-frost. We dodged up and down among these sand-hills, turning aside from the regular high road so that we might crouch down in case we were pursued. Along the whole length of the plain the broom of the wind swept our footprints over with snow.
80 To-day this former waste of shifting sand-hills has been converted into a splendid vineyard, which the Hungarian Government has planted with vines from America proof against the Phylloxera. — JÓKAI.]
“‘If only we don’t come across wolves!’ said the contra-bass, with chattering teeth.
“‘How can they be here when so many soldiers are about?’ said I, by way of encouragement.
“‘Nay, but they like to prowl about camps, because carrion is always to be found there.’
“Where the sand-hills ended, a far-extending flat began, and in the distance was a direful-looking object, resembling a ruin. A light mist covered the whole district, in which mist every object seemed as large again; the full moon shone wanly, like a huge broad halo in the misty heavens.”
Here I explained to Bessy that this district was the famous plain of Alpar, where the ancient Magyars fought the decisive battle against Zalán, which gave them possession of the land; the ruin was the wall of the desert church of St. Laurence.
“Indeed! and I may add that this desert is memorable to me also. While we were waddling along as fast as we could, with our short mantles turned against the wind, the contra-bass, who was going on leisurely in front, exclaimed:
“‘Devil take all these crows! Why don’t they all go to sleep in the tower of the Calvinist church?’
“I inquired why the crows ought to go to sleep on the top of the Calvinist church of all places in the world.
“‘Let the Calvinist crow stick to the top of the Calvinist church, and the Papist crow to the top of the Papist church, as is meet and right,’ he explained.
“I did not understand this sectarian distinction among crows, but the gipsy made it quite plain to me.
“‘One sort of crow is ashen grey, another sort black. The grey sort eats no flesh, but only grain; that is the Papist crow. The black sort lives on flesh, whether it be earthworms or fallen horse; that is the Calvinist crow, for it keeps no fast-days.’
“Then he called my attention to the fact that on the hill there straight before us, a whole army of crows was making a great commotion. At one moment they rose high into the air with loud croakings, at another they descended upon the self-same spot from which they had risen. ‘There must be carrion,’ he said.
“When we got to the top of the hill, we saw, to our great consternation, that the evil foreboding of the gipsy was correct.
“On the highway below, by the side of the ditch, lay a big black mass, the carcase of a fallen horse, and fighting over what remained of it was a whole army of crows and ravens and five large wolves.
“We were about five hundred paces from the terrible beasts.
“They immediately perceived us, and, leaving the carcase, forthwith began scudding towards us, spurring each other on with their nasty short sharp yelps.
“‘Alas, alas! It is all up with us now!’ wailed the contra-bass. ‘The wolves will eat us up.’
“Even in that hour of mortal peril the clarinetist was true to his gipsy humour. ‘Then we shall have a very queer shape at the resurrection,’ said he.
“I bade them leave off wailing, and hasten to clamber up into a willow-tree, whither the monsters could not follow us.
“It was an old pollard willow, the branches of which were cut off every year, so that only the crown of it remained, surrounded by young shoots. I, who had never learnt the art of tree-climbing, was hoisted up by the gipsies first of all, and then they hastily scrambled up after me.
“When we had got to the top of the tree we discovered that in the middle of it was a large hole — the whole inside of the tree was hollow, and could contain a man.
“‘Leader,’ said the contra-bass, ‘your loss would be most serious, creep down into that hole.’ I took him at his word, and glided down from the crown of the tree into the deep hollow trunk. First of all, however, I tied my long cotton neckerchief to a little branch, that I might be able to hoist myself up again in case of need, for the hole in the willow went right down to its very roots. At the side of the tree, too, close to an old branch, there was an orifice as large as one’s fist, through which one could look as through an attic window.
“The five wolves were not long in arriving.
“They did not come quite near at first, but reconnoitred. Whenever one of them sneaked up a little nearer, the clarinet-player aimed at it with his instrument, which the wolf took for a musket. Then the beast would back a little and scratch up the snow with his hind legs. They say the creature is wont to do this when he sees a man stand on the defensive; he tries to blind him with snow.
“When, however, the wolves at last discovered that we had no fire-arms, they sent up the ugliest howls, and began the siege of the willow. They took tremendous leaps in the air to reach the crown of the tree, but it was too high for them.
“Then it occurred to the gipsies that they had often heard that wolves had a strong penchant for music, and they began giving them a clarinet and fiddle concert.
“It is true that the nasty brutes left off the siege, sat round the willow, and began to howl in concert with the music, at the same time raising their horrid jaws towards the moon, and lashing their sides with their ragged brush-like tails; and for a short time I was quite amused at the scene. But suddenly our double danger occurred to my mind.
“‘Hey! gipsies. Stop, I say! Is the devil in you? Your music will bring the pickets of the Croats upon us, and they will flay us alive.’
“At this they stopped their music.
“This appeared to make the wolves still more savage, and now they tried a fresh stratagem.
“They had found out that the willow leaned a little to one side, and rushing at it from a little distance, they attempted to scale the sloping side of the tree. This manoeuvre was likely to have succeeded. It was then that I saw what a powerful beast the wolf really is, and how much more cunning than any species of dog. Scrambling up at full tilt, they managed to reach the crown of the willow, but there the brave contra-bass was awaiting them, and gave them such a kick on the snout with his iron-heeled boots that the attacking beasts fell head over heels backwards.
“This they repeated ten or twelve times.
“And there was this remarkable circumstance about it, that every time an attacking wolf was prostrated by a kick from the gipsy, the others rushed upon him as he fell, and worried him as if to punish him for his failure.
“Suddenly they left off, and went and sat down in a heap just in front of my window. Their tongues lolled out of their panting mouths; their hot, bestial breath rose into the cold air before me. They appeared to be taking counsel together. The biggest of them seemed to be their leader. If one of the younger ones yelped too much, he would snap at his neck as if to say ‘shut up!’
“At last they appeared to have hatched their stratagem. The whole lot of them got up and shuffled farther off, squinting over their shoulders all the time towards the willow-tree.
“My gipsies fancied they were saved.
“‘You shall have no roast gipsy this time!’ bawled the clarinet-player after them derisively from his sure stronghold, as he fancied it.
“All at once the wolves returned and stormed onwards like race-horses, each one being about a wolf’s tail ahead of the other.
“The first of them rushed straight up the tree, and while the contra-bass was kicking him in the head, the second wolf leaped across the first wolf’s back and seized the man’s leg.
“I heard a despairing shriek:
“‘Don’t let me go, comrade!’
“The second musician tried to free his down-falling friend from the jaws of the wild beast, and in doing so lost his balance, and the pair of them fell down from the tree.
“What happened after that is more than I can tell you. It is enough that I should have had to live through that mortal struggle of the two luckless victims with those filthy brutes. How many times have I not dreamt it all over again! I believe that even if I had committed all the seven deadly sins, I should have more than expiated them all in that awful hour. I hid my face in the crumbling rottenness of the hollow tree, that I might hear and see nothing. It seemed an eternity to me while the bestial howling lasted which the wolves made as they shared together their accursed banquet in my very presence.
“I dared not stir, lest they might find out that I also was there. Great Heaven! What horrors I had to endure!
“Suddenly a sort of growling and snarling began close beside me. The old wolf was running sniffing round the hollow tree. He had discovered that there was still booty inside it.
“He began to scrape the earth at the root of the tree. He evidently meant to dig a hole beneath the tree through which he might get at me. Fortunately for me, it was not sandy soil, but stony, hard-frozen turf. He could not succeed that way.
“Then he caught sight of the hole in the side of the tree. At one time, perhaps, a branch had been sawed off at this spot, and the bark had rotted away. The wolf began to enlarge this opening, tore it with his claws, and gnawed and worried the rotten wood with his grinders. He had soon so far enlarged the hole as to be able to stick his head into it. I saw the green glare of his fiery eyes; I felt his stinking breath; I heard the gnashing of his teeth. Then despair made me foolhardy. I drew my crooked knife out of the leg of my boot, with the other hand I seized the wolf by the ear, and cut it off at a single twirl.
“At this the beast, with a furious howl, drew back his head from the hole, and began to howl and run away like a whipped cur. The others followed after him. With the wolf’s ear remaining in my hand as a trophy, I sank back against the hollow trunk; I could not sink right down, because the hollow space was too narrow.”
I felt a cold shudder run all over me at this ghastly narrative. Bessy herself was quite exhausted.
“Alas! I am quite worn out. I tremble at the very thought of it. You are the second person to whom I have told it. But how pale you are all at once!”
I suppose I had turned very pallid. It had suddenly flashed through my brain that just at that very time my wife was on her journey through an uninhabited valley, and the foresters told me that wolves strayed about there.
Bessy sighed deeply, raised her drooping head, and then continued her story:—
“Thus I had freed myself from the wolves; but I was not left very long in the belief that shame at my depriving their leader of one of his ears was the cause of it. No! Wolves are not so shamefaced as all that. A troop of horsemen was approaching from behind the sand-hills. There were six men on horseback and one man on assback.
“One terror had been supplanted by another.
“Peering through the hole in the tree, I recognised the uniforms of the horsemen by the light of the moon — they were Jellachich’s hussars. And that there might be no doubt about their coming after us, I recognised as they came near the face of the ass-rider. It was my bass-viol player, whom I had left behind me.
“It was very easy to see what had happened. The gipsy, to save his own skin, or, perhaps, at the flogging-post itself, had confessed that the band had come from Comorn, and was hired by me to go as far as Debreczin. Hence it was not very difficult to conclude that I was only a false gipsy, who was carrying despatches from the beleaguered fortress to the Hungarian Government.
“The horsemen had brought the gipsy with them that he might put them on my track. Once discovered, and I was lost.
“On the snow field, lit up by the moonlight, the scene of the hideous struggle was plain to the newcomers. The long lines of blood, fragments of torn garments, a foot sticking out of a boot in the snow — Ugh! May I never see such a sight again!
“The horsemen galloped quickly up over the crackling snow.
“The violoncellist had to dismount from his ass.
“The good creature howled and groaned from the bottom of his throat, bewailing his comrades in the gipsy tongue, and cursing the monsters who had devoured them.
“The leader of the patrol was a sergeant. He ordered the gipsy about in Croatian, and the gipsy has the peculiar virtue of understanding what is said to him in a language of which he is perfectly ignorant. He replied in Hungarian.
“‘Oh, woe, woe! Those accursed wolves have devoured our leader! There’s his boot! They’ve only left his boot. I recognise it well. He bought it only last week at Czegled. He gave six florins for it. A brand-new boot! And this is his foot.’
“It was plain to me that the gipsy had guessed that I was hidden somewhere, and there was enough of the gipsy in him, even amidst the greatest horrors, to induce him to make fools of my pursuers. He betrayed me first of all because he couldn’t help it; he saved me finally because he could. He knew very well that I had given my new boots to the contra-bass. My boots were of Russian leather.
“‘Look there!’ cried the sergeant, and he pointed with his finger. ‘Jeden, dwa! Jak sza tri?’81
81 Croatian —“One, two! Where’s the third?”]
“The gipsy swore by all that was holy that that was the third.
“‘Then where’s the first?’
“‘That’s the first, of course!’
“There was no dinning into his head the arithmetical truism that if you take two from three one remains.
“The sergeant thereupon ordered one of the hussars to dismount from his horse, at the same time pointing at the willow-tree with his sword, whence I concluded that he was about to examine the tree to see if anybody was hidden in its hollow trunk.
“I now veritably believed that the time had come for me to turn my crooked knife against my own throat.
“All at once a crackle of musketry resounded from the brushwood, and a company of guerilla horse dashed out, crying, ‘Forward, Magyars!’ The Jellachich hussars didn’t see the joke of this at all, hastily turned their horses’ heads and galloped off in the direction of the town. The violoncellist also mounted his long-eared beast, and ambled gently off in a third direction midway between the two belligerents. He had no desire to take any part in the struggle.
“The guerillas, who were numerous, sent a few volleys after the enemy, but from such a distance that the bullets couldn’t possibly hit the fugitives, and then returned in triumph. Then I, hearing them speak Hungarian, quickly hoisted myself up out of the hole into the top of the tree, and began so far as my hoarse voice would allow me, to give them indications of my existence.
“The gallant warriors immediately hastened to the willow-tree and helped me down from my dangerous perch. Their leader, a handsome, chivalrous-looking young man, with a true Hungarian face, began to cross-question me, and asked me whence I came and whither I was going. Perceiving that I was among Hungarian soldiers, I frankly told them that I had come from Comorn, and had been sent to Debreczin with despatches for the Hungarian Government.
“The guerilla captain was a suspicious man.
“‘Oho! I daresay! That’s easily said, but difficult to believe. What! confide such a mission to a gipsy! A likely tale!’
“I told him that I was no gipsy, though my face was painted so, but that I lived at Comorn and belonged to the place.
“‘Then, if you are an inhabitant, tell me if you know one Maurus Jókai there — and what you know of him?’
“I was very pleased to answer such a question. ‘I know him very well,’ I said, ‘and I can tell you this much about him, that he went to the High School at Kecskemet, where he completed his legal studies — or rather learnt how to paint in oils from a worthy comrade of his there.’
“Without more ado he clapped his hand in mine: ‘That worthy comrade of his was no other than myself.’
“So you see,” she said, turning towards me, “you were of assistance to me, even here.”
“Wasn’t that old schoolfellow of mine called Jansci?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s what they called him. With him was another young man, with quite a girlish face, and him they called Józsi; he inquired about you most particularly. When you gave your artistic representations at Kecskemet, he used to play the girl’s parts.”
“Quite true,” I said, “so it was.”
“So you see I must have been there or I should have known nothing about these things. The guerillas told me all about it as they took me with them. They were very attentive. One of them gave me his mantle, another let me mount his nag, and so they took me to the ‘Szikra’ inn, where they made me drink punch with them, regaled me with veal, and then made me a bed on the straw with their mantles that I might sleep off my exhaustion. The Jellachich hussars gave us no trouble. They could not come back till morning, when the whole regiment would doubtless turn out to capture the guerillas, who would, by that time, be on the other side of the Theiss. The sledges were all ready to start, and would scour back across the frozen river at the first signal to Czibakhaza, where were the foreposts of the Hungarian army under Damjanich.
“But for a long time I could not sleep. Constantly before my eyes flitted the horrible death-struggle between the two unhappy men and the wild beasts, and amidst the howling and shrieking resounded the gay song of the guerillas:
‘The hut’s ablaze, the rush-roof crackles,
Press thy brown maid to thy breast!’
In my dream this tune was mingled with the howling of the wolves, and at one moment the wolves were singing, ‘The hut’s ablaze,’ and at another the Croats were howling at the gipsies sitting on the branch. Towards morning I was awakened by two cannon-shots. I rejoiced to be delivered from my spectres. The lieutenant of the guerillas hurried me into the sledge, as a regiment of hostile horse was approaching from Kecskemet.
“It took us ten minutes to dash across the frozen Theiss. On the opposite bank the foreposts of the Honveds were encamping. The business of the guerillas was to harass the enemy, capture their forage waggons, and then bring word of their movements to the main army.
“They took me straight to General Damjanich.82
82 Made Commander-inchief of the 3rd Hungarian Army Corps in consequence of his brilliant exploits at Alibunar and Lagerdorf; he annihilated Karger’s brigade at the great battle of Szolnok, and was elected to represent that town in the Hungarian Diet. After fresh exploits he was made War Minister, and, after the war, was court-marshalled at Arad by the Austrians and shot. He had not the military genius of Görgey perhaps, but as a general of division was admirable. — TR.]
“I was now no longer obliged to keep my despatch hidden, so I split up my fiddle, took out of it the documents that were gummed to it, and their production was my best credentials.
“The approving, smiling glance of the powerful, heroic-looking General I shall never forget. At the sight of him I quite forgot that I was personating a man, and would have liked to have fallen down before him and kissed his hand. Indeed, I was so agitated that I could not utter a word.
“The General filled a little glass full of szilvorium.83 ‘Drink, my son!’ said he, ‘it will loosen your throat.’
83 A spirit made from plums.]
“My throat was hoarse; I had a voice as deep as a man’s. I told him I had come from Comorn, and I was sent to Lazar Mészáros, the War Minister.
“‘You will seek old Kóficz84 in vain at Debreczin, my son, he commands there no more. So you Comorn folks don’t know what’s going on outside, eh? Another is at the head of the War Department now. I will give you a letter of introduction to him.’
84 This Hungarian War Minister had said in one of his reports that the motions of the Opposition in the Diet would turn to nothing but Kóficz (i.e., water-gruel). The name stuck to him ever after. — JÓKAI.]
“Then he sat down and wrote me a couple of lines to a General with a German name, which is expressed in Hungarian by the word Bacsi.85
85 Cousin. — Vetter was the General in question.]
“He said, while he was writing this letter, that this General with a German name was the life and soul of our military organization.
“Then, by the General’s command, I received a nice clean Honved uniform (I had to retain my brown countenance for some time longer), and besides that I had an open passport enjoining upon all to give me every facility to reach Debreczin as quickly as possible.
“On the evening of the following day I arrived at Debreczin, and on descending from my sledge, proceeded at once to the General’s. He was a mild, soft-featured gentleman, with a close-clipped beard and moustache. He didn’t even wear a General’s uniform. Nobody would have guessed his rank from the look of him. After reading through my letter of introduction, he looked me straight and sharply in the face.
“‘You are Captain Tihamér Rengetegi, eh?’
“If I had only been intent on my own interest, I might have told him quite frankly that I had no right either to the name or the uniform of a soldier; but how could I betray my faithful consort who was smuggled away in the hovel at Hetény?
“‘Yes, General, I am.’
“‘Who made you captain?’
“‘The War Minister.’
“‘For deeds of valour?’
“‘During the siege of Vienna I twice carried despatches through the besieging camp from the Hungarian Government to General Bem.’”
Here I intervened: “That is not true; I know very well through whom the Hungarian Government got those despatches.”
“Anyhow, my friend boasted of it as his own deed,” said Bessy; after which she resumed her narration.
“‘Good!’ said the General; ‘now give me the despatch.’
“The information was written in a secret cipher.
“‘I must decipher this first. There will be a meeting to-night of the Committee of National Defence. Early tomorrow morning you will appear before me. Now go to the “White Horse.” Speak to nobody. Keep your room!’
“Nevertheless, an hour afterwards he sent for me.
“He led me into his inner room, for he allowed himself the luxury of a double-roomed apartment at Debreczin. Two other ministers, Paul Nyáry and Joseph Patay, were not so fortunate. They had to be content with a double room between them.
“The General was now very gentle with me. He made me sit down at table, and poured me out some tea. He offered me a cigar too, and although I ought not to have done so, I lighted it. It nipped my tongue a good deal, but I had to show them that I was a man.
“Then he made me tell them how I had got out of the fortress, and how I had forced my way through the hostile camp. My relation made a great impression. When I was dismissed, they pressed my hand and assured me that my good and boldly executed service should be rewarded. They further commanded me to come to them early the next day.
“I appeared next day at his headquarters in full parade, and they admitted me before any one else.
“Again they made me sit down in the inner apartment, and drew the bolt before the door of the outer room.
“Stretched out on the table was a large military map which embraced Upper Hungary and Galicia. ‘You have brought very important information with you from Comorn,’ said he, in a low voice. ‘Considering the time when you set out, you have arrived here with astonishing rapidity. You must now take the reply back, which will contain the directions of the Council of War and the appointment of the new Commandant, who will be gazetted to-night. Can you make your way back to the fortress with this despatch?’
“‘You must get back without fail. What’s your plan?’
“‘To go back by the same road in the same manner and the same disguise is impossible. The wolves tore two of my comrades to pieces, the Croats captured the third, and as he may have confessed everything, they would recognise me at once if I appeared before their eyes as I am now. Besides, there is no conceivable reason why gipsies should wish to leave the open plain in order to get into a bombarded town. This despatch can only be conveyed to Comorn by a woman who is obliged to go there on some unimpeachable business, and is provided with an Austrian safe-conduct.’
“The General clapped his hands together in amazement.
“‘And do you know of any woman who would undertake such a thing?’
“‘Certainly I do.’
“‘Where? What’s her name?’
“‘That’s my secret, General. The difficulty of getting into the fortress is also very much increased by the fact that the appointment of Richard Guyon as the new Commandant has already become generally known.’
“The General leaped furiously from his seat.
“‘Who, then, has made this public?’
“‘It is here in the official gazette,’ I replied, drawing out of my pocket that morning’s issue of the Közlöny.
“The General tugged his short moustache still shorter.
“‘Well, well! I see that we Magyars have yet to learn the art of keeping a secret. The enemy knows it now, but the Comorn folks do not know it.’
“‘I have already hit upon a good idea of enabling the mandate of the Council of War to reach their hands.’
“‘By a carrier-pigeon or a balloon, I suppose?’
“‘A foreign passport is necessary for my plan.’
“‘That you shall have — an English passport viséd by the Embassy. In whose name?’
“‘In the lady’s.’
“‘Then you must give us the lady’s name.’
“Then I gave him my real name as the lawful wife of Muki Bagotay.
“‘And you? Will you get into the fortress?’
“‘Possibly, as that lady’s coachman — possibly not at all; but the despatch will get in, anyhow.’
“‘And how will this lady of yours manage to hide the despatch? I can tell you beforehand, that even if your lady were provided with a safe-conduct from the Princess Windischgrätz86 herself, and so got right through the hostile camp into the invested fortress, the Austrians would indeed welcome her most courteously; but they would at the same time say to her: “Would your little ladyship be so good as to step into that side-chamber; there you will find a complete set of lady’s clothes, would you be so kind as to put them on — if they are a little more abundant than your own, that doesn’t matter? The toilet you have brought with you may remain here, down even to the shoes and stockings; whenever you like to come back again, you can reexchange your clothes.” For they know that it is possible to write on chemises with invisible ink and reproduce the writing by means of chemical reagents. It is also possible for the heels of your boots to have secret openings, in which a letter written on straw-paper might be inserted. They might also retain the comb with which you fasten up your hair, for a valuable message might be written thereupon in microscopic letters.’
86 The wife of the Austrian Commander-inchief. — TR.]
“‘All this they may do if they like, and yet this lady of mine will convey the despatch into the fortress.’
“‘I should like to know her secret.’
“”Tis a very simple one. She will learn the whole despatch by heart from beginning to end.’
“The General began to laugh.
“‘Oho ho! My dear friend, you don’t suppose that we would entrust our couriers with a despatch in good Hungarian for the enemy to snap it up on the way, and thus learn all about our military operations. It may also be deliberately betrayed. In the times in which we now live men are quick enough to discover excuses for changing their saddles. This despatch contains all our secrets: where we are strong, where we are weak, where we want to assume the offensive, where we are obliged to stand on the defensive. Such a despatch would be worth 200,000 florins to the enemy at the very least.’
“‘I can assure you, General, that neither I nor this lady will betray it.’
“‘You couldn’t if you would, for the whole despatch is in cipher. Take it, and look at it. Do you understand a word of it? Can any one possibly learn it by heart?’
“The writing which he placed in my hand was composed of a jumble of letters grouped into words — characters whose contents could scarcely be called language at all. I nevertheless assured the General that this lady of mine would learn the despatch off by heart all the same.
“‘Nothing is impossible. Once, when we were actors . . . ’
“‘Then you were actors? And this lady was an actress too, eh?’
“‘Yes. Once our whole company went to Eszek, and there we acted a whole piece in the Croatian tongue without understanding a word of its meaning. A man is like a starling. If he repeats a thing a hundred times it remains in his head although he does not understand it.’
“‘Look here, then! Read but two lines of this despatch a hundred times over, half an hour will do, and see if it remains in your head.’
“I consented. A quarter of an hour had not yet elapsed when I said that I was ready. I gave the General the despatch back again, and asked for ink and paper. And then slowly, meditatively, I wrote down the contents of those two lines letter by letter.
“‘You’ve got a marvellous headpiece,’ said the General, in amazement. ‘And has that lady of yours just such a marvellously retentive capacity as you have?’
“‘Just the same.’
“‘Then I consider the stratagem as feasible.’”
Here I could not help leaping to my feet. “What!” cried I, “you actually undertook to learn by heart a whole despatch written in cipher?”
“No, my sweet friend! I won’t deceive you as I deceived that other man. The whole thing was a delusion. The cryptograms which reached the Commandant of the fortress were entrusted to Rengetegi, that he might unpod them with a secret key. He communicated this key to me. One had only to know a single word whose consecutive letters repeat all the characters of the alphabet in different series. The whole thing only required a little calculation; there was no need to rack one’s brains about it. With the assistance of the secret key I first of all deciphered the cipher, and then I retransferred it into its original rigmarole.”
“But are you aware,” I interrupted, “that if the General had found you out, he would have had you shot on the spot?”
“I suspected as much. But he suspected nothing. He was really a good, worthy man. He said that things being as they were, he could safely confide the despatch to my hands.
“After that he pointed out to me on the military map the route I ought to take through Galicia, by which I should possibly avoid falling in with the enemy’s squadrons. My passport in the name of Madame János Bagotay he filled up with his own hand. I begged him to leave a blank space for the personal description of my travelling companion.
“When this was ready he gave me a portfolio full of Austrian bank-notes, besides a hundred louis d’ors and a handful of silver money.
“Then he pressed my hand, and said: ‘The last line of this despatch announces the promotion of Captain Rengetegi to the rank of major.’”
At this both Bessy and I laughed heartily, and then she merrily resumed her story as follows:—
“My return journey was in a much more lordly fashion. Everywhere relays were waiting for me. In a couple of days I reached Vienna. While still in Comorn, I had learnt that my mother had gone there for refuge, and still kept up her intimacy with a certain high official in the Imperial army. He was in the service of the War Minister there. It was not difficult to find him. I will leave you to picture to yourself the scene of our meeting. My mother loves acting, but she is a bad player, she never knows her part. She would have liked to have cried and fainted when I came rushing in, but she got no further than sobbing. I was all the better able to play my part. I hastened to excuse her for her behaviour at our last meeting. I took all the blame on myself. I ought to have remembered, I said, that it was not the proper thing to cling on to my mother’s carriage when the infuriated populace was seeking her life. Then I went on to the motive of my coming there. The Hungarian Governmental Commission at Comorn had ordered that every Austrian bank-note which could be laid hands upon was to be burnt in the middle of the market-place. My mother had 40,000 florins in bank-notes, which the Orphanage Fund had retained from my patrimony. This amount had been lent out to various persons at interest. These persons, as soon as they heard of the order of the Governmental Commission, had hastened to deposit their German bank-notes — not in the fortress, but in the town bank, that they might at least get back their securities; and thus it was our money that would be burnt. That was why I had come at such a break-neck pace, I said. If my mother would give me a power of attorney for the purpose, I would immediately return, and as I had great influence with the Commandant, I would so manage that our money instead of being burnt should be handed over to me. After that I would settle with my mother. She also had money locked up there which I would get handed over to me.
“This proposition made an impression.
“I had already informed my mother by letter of all this when communications were freer than now, but she, as all nervous people do with their letters, the moment she recognised my handwriting in the address, put it away without opening it. She fancied it was full of maudlin penitence. Now, however, when I called her attention to this letter, she took it out and opened it, and almost fainted with terror when she saw the annexed official communication of the Governmental Commission, and learnt therefrom that the term fixed for the bonfire of the Austrian bank-notes would be reached in three days.
“Then there was such a scampering to her good friend the high official, and to all sorts of high commanding officers, in order to procure for me a safe-conduct; then she got me a power of attorney neatly written out, by means of which I could reclaim her money, and then she said: ‘Now, don’t wait a moment, my darling girl, but jump into a fiacre and gallop off to Comorn.’
“I found my journey back much freer from obstacles than my coming away. The self-same major of cuirassiers who would have had me flogged as a gipsy leader was now full of courtesy towards me. After reading my letter of introduction, in which the object of my journey was mentioned, he could not have the slightest doubt that I was about purely private business which was very pressing. He did not even have me searched. I could have smuggled into the fortress anything I liked.
“When I had passed through the besieging lines, I turned off from the highway in the direction of Hetény, that I might seek out my captive.
“After the first delights of meeting each other again were over, I told him the whole story which I have just been telling you. I must say that I had a much more appreciative audience than you are. At the sensational scenes, he flung himself on the ground . . . and with folded, uplifted hands implored the wolves not to devour me. He swore that if he caught the Ban of Croatia he would dance the life out of him for making me fiddle so unmercifully. When I dictated to him the despatch I had learnt by heart, by means of the secret key, the last lines of which contained his promotion to the rank of major, he exclaimed, with an irresistible burst of grateful emotion: ‘My Queen! my Zenobia!’ I had made him a major; he made me a queen. We were quits.
“‘And now let us hasten to the fortress,’ I said, ‘for I have urgent business there. I want to save my property. Our house has been burnt already; if our money is burnt too, we shall be beggars.’ This made him hasten.
“‘I must, however,’ said he, ‘devise something to round off my expedition, something of the quality of a heroic deed.’
“And by the time we reached the fortress he had devised something.
“The return of the courier with the despatch of the Hungarian Commander-inchief created an extraordinary sensation in the fortress and spread even to the town. The Commandant immediately proclaimed that Captain Tihamér Rengetegi had been promoted to the rank of Major by the Hungarian War Minister for extraordinary services.
“A banquet in honour of the returning hero followed. All the officers were present. The ladies also took part in it. I was there too. Never had I seen Bálványossi (I beg his pardon, Rengetegi) play his part in so masterly a manner as on that evening. He was the gipsy leader who, with three others, fiddled his way right through every hostile camp. And what amusing adventures befell him on the road! I believe he laid under contribution every book of gipsy anecdote that was ever published. And when he came to that ghastly scene with the wolves — that was indeed a drastic description. The reality was nothing like so horrible as his account of it. The ladies swooned, the men were horror-stricken, only I was inclined to laugh. And when the guerillas turned up, how valiant my Rengetegi became all at once! He took horse and started off in pursuit of the cuirassiers. (To him they were cuirassiers!) It would have been beneath his dignity to have chased mere hussars. . . . By way of climax came the splendid description of how he cut his way through the besieging host. In the dark night, amidst a blinding blackness of midnight snow-storm, he cut his way on horseback through the Austrian foreposts, leaping over trenches and earth-works, with the bullets skimming about his ears right and left. His horse was shot dead beneath him, but ever equal to the occasion, he hastily fastened on his skates, and skated with the rapidity of lightning over the frozen Zsitva and the Csiliz, and two other rivers the names of which I never heard of before. Thus at last he reached the fortress. Every one was enchanted with the narration. The ladies rose en masse and kissed him, and improvised a laurel-wreath for his brows out of muscatel leaves.
“To save appearances, I also went up to him that I might condole with and congratulate him upon all the exploits and sufferings he had gone through, when all at once my friend turned quite stiff and rigid, gave me a cold bow, pursed his lips, and turned up the whites of his eyes.
“‘Madame!’ said he, ‘I have a word or two to say to you also. Where were you, may I ask, while I was jeopardizing my life a hundred times every day for my country? Can you tell me how you were occupying your days all this while?’
“I was confounded. Language died away on my lips. The blood rushed to my face. I felt that every one was now looking at me. Naturally nobody in Comorn had seen me all this time.
“‘If what the world whispers turns out to be true, and you have in the meantime been to Vienna — but no! I will not believe it.’
“His magnanimity offended me even more than his indictment.
“‘What is it to you whence I come or whither I go?’ I replied, turning my back upon him and beginning to talk to the young officers, like one who has nothing to be ashamed of.
“Shortly afterwards I quitted the banqueting-room. I hadn’t reached the end of the long pavilion corridor in the fortress when Rengetegi came running after me.
“‘What on earth possessed you to calumniate and accuse me before the whole company,’ I said to him, ‘just as if I were a traitor, or I don’t know what?’
“‘Tsitt! Zenobia, my Queen. Let us understand each other. It was in your own interest that I had to feign jealousy and rage. Let us go into my room and I’ll explain everything.’
“When we were alone together he locked the door and then explained things nicely.
“‘It concerns your money.’
“‘Amidst all this laudation, appreciation, and ovation, and all the other flummery, I did not lose sight of the main chance. I told the Governor privately that if he wished to reward me in any way, he might do me the favour not to give to the flames the property deposited in the bank to the credit of the damsel who was so near to my heart, but allow me to bring it back to her. The austere patriot was as inexorable as Brutus. “Never!” said he. “We will burn what we have laid hands upon, even though it were the property of my own father. We can make no exception. What would those poor devils say whose paltry ten or twenty florins we surrender to the flames of the auto-da-fé if we allowed the forty or fifty thousand florins of the rich to fly away? Burn they shall!” This he said with a very wrathful voice. Then he added in a milder tone: “However, I’ll confide the burning of them to you.”’
“Now I began to understand.
“‘A quarrel between us therefore has become an absolute necessity. We must fly into a rage with each other. The auto-da-fé will take place in a couple of days. The bonfire will be in the centre of the public square. I shall throw the bundles of bank-notes one by one among the spluttering faggots. You must be close by the booths of the bread-sellers, and break out into curses. You remember the cursing scene from Deborah? Very well, it may be useful. After the auto-da-fé there must be a lively scene between us. We must cast our mutual souvenirs at each other’s feet. I’ll throw at you the embroidered cushion which you worked for my birthday, and inside it will be the money belonging to you and your mamma which I have rescued. Then be off as quick as you can to Vienna.’
“‘But how about the packet that you have to burn?’
“‘Leave that to me; a few copies of the Comorn News will give every bit as brisk a flame.’
“Everything happened according to his instructions. I saved our property, and you must admit that my friend and I displayed considerable prudence on this occasion. We did nobody any wrong: I only recovered what was my own.
“Then we fell out together publicly, as preconcerted. My friend Rengetegi played Othello in a masterly manner. Then as our acquaintances could not succeed in reconciling us, we solemnly separated and I went back to Vienna.
“On the way back I again fell in with the Austrian major. I showed him the money I brought with me, naturally without letting him know how I came by it. He became so friendly as even to entrust me with a letter to an old acquaintance of his in Vienna, who was none other than my mother’s colonel. . . .
“You may imagine the friendly reception which awaited me when I returned to Vienna and gave my mother her money. She folded me in her arms, covered me with kisses, bedewed me with tears, and called me her darling child. What still remained to me of my patrimony, about 40,000 florins, I placed in the Vienna savings-bank. The rest of my dower was in the hands of Muki Bagotay, with the exception of what we spent while we lived together. This also I contrived to get back again — but how?
“In the spring, when the fortune of the war changed, Comorn was relieved, and I hastened off home again. I told my mother that I was urgently bent upon building up again our burnt house — only the roof had been burnt off, the walls remained standing. She approved of my resolution, and was very proud of having such a sensible and enterprising daughter. I immediately set about rebuilding our house, taking advantage of the time which elapsed from the raising of the first to the beginning of the second siege. During my stay at Vienna I moved continually in military circles, and I saw quite plainly what was coming. But why reopen my wounds? All my illusions were over. I had learnt to know my hero at close quarters, behind the scenes, I might say. This ‘lord of creation’ used to whine before his tailor for a respite with his account till next pay-day, and immediately afterwards would ascend his triumphal car drawn by captive kings and declaim to the populace of conquered Constantinople. But in one particular thing Major Rengetegi really extorted my admiration, I mean by his strategical science.”
“Ah!” cried I.
“You may well say ‘ah!’ I have read the campaigns of Napoleon I., I have read the campaigns of Charles XII., but in none of them could I discover so many ruses of war as my hero invented in order to triumphantly solve the problem — how a man in his capacity of superior officer may constantly be taking part in the most ticklish skirmishes without allowing his person to get into the way of any wandering bullet. He always knew how to hit upon some mission whereby he might manage to skedaddle out of danger. And if I now and then fluttered the red rag of self-esteem before his eyes, he would reply: ‘I have duties towards art; if they shoot away half my leg, how shall I be able to act on the stage again?’ Yet, when the battle was over, who so great a hero as he! Others only mowed down the enemy, he thrashed them afterwards with a flail. ’Tis a dreadful thing when a woman discovers that her hero is a habitual liar, lying with the fiery burning conviction that no man will dare to doubt him, so that she has to make him swear to the truth of every word he utters.
“Meanwhile, I continued my house-building. Every sort of building material was very dear, and there was plenty of money too. Whence did all this money come? I’ll tell you. The Russian hosts had already invaded the kingdom. The speculator-species perceived that the national cause was declining. The Hungarian armies were everywhere falling back. Then Klapka, by a brilliant victory, raised the second siege of Comorn and was within an ace of capturing the besieging host. The region was instantly alive with people, and a whole series of triumphs followed one after another. And now there flocked to Comorn from every part of the kingdom quite a tribe of panic-stricken speculators and jobbers, with bags full of Hungarian bank-notes, and bought everything that was for sale, at whatever price the sellers liked to ask. My Muki also took advantage of this lucky period to regulate his finances. He sold his herds at four times their real value, and paid the price, in Hungarian bank-notes, into the deposit bank at Comorn. It was my dowry paid back, he said. The bank hastened to place the amount in my hands; and I hastened to satisfy therewith my architects and builders, who did not let the money stick to their hands.
“Doesn’t this remind you of the round game we used to play as children, when we lit a straw, and, sitting in a circle, passed it round from hand to hand; whoever was the last to hold it till the fire burned his hands, him we used to thump unmercifully — that was the forfeit? Just such a burning straw was the dowry paid back to me by my husband. The roof of my father’s house was the straw end which remained in my hands. The amount which I deposited in the Vienna bank is all I have left in the world — except Tihamér Rengetegi. But not even he has remained mine, for he has changed into Bálványossi. And now here we are together. The playing of a common part unites us. From morn to eve every word we say to one another is a lie. It is not even true that any one is pursuing Rengetegi, for at the capitulation of Comorn he received his safe-conduct which guarantees his life and liberty. That is not what distresses him. But he wishes to deny the whole part he played during the Revolution, that as Bálványossi, the theatre-director, he may get the necessary concession. He is continually urging me to go to Miskolcz to the Government Commissioner and settle the business for him.”
“No, you don’t. It is none of those interventions which we see in romances and dramas, when a pretty woman goes to move a mighty tyrant with her tears, and sacrifice her charms to him as the price of the life and liberty of her persecuted husband. Oh no! my hero is no plagiarist! His ideas are all original. He wants me to go to the mighty gentleman and tell him that the Debreczin expedition, which has given rise to the whole of this heroic poem, is not his ‘crime,’ but mine. I was the gipsy leader who played before the Ban Jellachich, and then escaped. It was I who carried the despatch to the Hungarian Government. In a word: I am to sacrifice myself on his account!”
“Fie! fie! And still you love this man!”
“What am I to do? I have nobody but him in the wide world; and besides, he is such a droll, amusing character. All day long we are either fighting or frolicking, and it is this variation which makes life so charming.”
But for all that, she flung herself on the ground and hid her face in the green moss. She was in such a good humour!
“Sha’n’t we give our friend a signal to come out of his hole?”
“He is quite comfortable — don’t disturb him.”
“I wonder you don’t hit upon the very obvious idea of putting an end to this pantomimic game of hide and seek. You have a foreign passport. You could enter your friend in it under some such description as major-domo or travelling companion. You could take him with you to Naples or to Paris, and you could live without care on the interest of the fund deposited at the Vienna bank.”
“I know that.”
“Then why not do it?”
“Because I don’t choose.”
And as she said this she looked strangely at me with her enigmatically mysterious eyes, in which heaven and hell were blended together like starlight in darkness!
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52