It was now four years since I had made friends with the beech woods. For two years I was “Sajó,” but after that I was again able to practise the art of letters in my own name.
My wife and I saw nobody, and nobody came to see us. We had both of us quite enough to do without paying visits. My wife was an actress, and I an author. And let nobody suppose that actresses and authors live in the land of Cockaigne.88 Both have very hard work to do, and rest is their dearest recreation.
88 Lit., a sky full of fiddles.]
Unfortunately I was engaged in publishing and editing. Nominally, indeed, the director of the National Theatre was the responsible editor and publisher of the belle-lettristic and artistic journal Délibab, for my name was still under police supervision; but, in reality, I wrote and edited the whole paper, corrected the proofs, and folded up, directed, and despatched the copies of it to the subscribers — and got into trouble for it besides.
My only assistant was a worthy, semi-rustic, very pronounced Hungarian lad, called Coloman Iglódi, who had served as lieutenant under the banner of the red-capped Honveds in our Utopian days.89 At the battle of Tarczal he had received three bullets, one in the face, the second in the arm, and the third in the leg, and these wounds he had to thank for his dismissal as a genuine invalid. So he joined me as messenger, secretary, and door-keeper, and a worthy, honest fellow he was.
89 i.e., during the war.]
One afternoon “clerk Coloman” (that was his familiar epithet) opened the door of my working-room. “I beg pardon, sir,” said he, “but a cuirassier is here.”
“What sort of a cuirassier?”
“A senior lieutenant.”
“What does he want with me, I wonder?”
In the fifties the visit of an officer was tantamount to a challenge. Those were the days of the famous political duels in which Coloman Tisza,90 Julius Szapary,91 and Francis Beniczky fought with the delegated officers.
90 The late Prime Minister of Hungary and leader of the Liberal party there.]
91 The present Prime Minister. — Since this note was written, Szapary has given way to Weckerle.]
“Call me, please, if necessary,” said clerk Coloman confidentially, making at the same time a significant movement with the paper-knife.
Then the visitor entered.
In figure he was half a head taller than me at the very least. He was a strong, broad-shouldered fellow. His bony face wore quite a stony expression by reason of a powerful eagle nose and a broad double chin. On the other hand this sternness was somewhat contradicted by a pair of honest, bright-blue eyes, a little mouth, and offensively light hair, though his eyebrows, moustache, and whiskers were even lighter.
My visitor, as he advanced from my door to my writing-table, took those three short mazurka steps which, with men, are generally the preliminaries to a military salute; he held, close pressed to his thigh, his beautiful helmet, with the golden lions and the black-yellow plumes; and when he stood in front of me, he clashed his spurs together and introduced himself in Hungarian.
“I am Wenceslaus Kvatopil, senior lieutenant of dragoons.”
He had the peculiar habit of accompanying every word with an explanatory movement of his hand, so that a stone-deaf person could have understood perfectly what he meant. The deprecatory movement of his hand meant — Wenceslaus Kvatopil; the indication of the twin stars on his collar meant that he was a lieutenant; the slight elevation of his helmet signified that he was a dragoon, and the simultaneous sweep of the hand towards his breast gave me to understand that he was not a cuirassier.
“I am glad to see you,” I said; “how can I be of service?”
“I should like to have a long conversation with you, sir, if you will let me.”
At this I would have offered him a chair, but on no account in the world would he suffer me to do so, but helped himself to one, and then once more apologised for the trouble he was giving before he sat down opposite to me.
I begged him to address me in German, as I was quite capable of making myself understood in that tongue.
“No! no! En akarom magyariul beszélni”92— and at the same time he made as though he were ducking the head of a refractory urchin in a basin of soapsuds.
92 “I want to talk in Hungarian.”]
“Akarok,” I good-humouredly corrected him.
“No! no! Akarok is the indefinite mood, akarom the definite mood; and I want to speak Hungarian definitely.”
I was forced to acknowledge to myself that his logic was stronger than his grammar.
“I was born in Leutomischl”93— here he let his head fall regretfully on his breast.
93 A Bohemian town. He meant by this that he belonged to Czech officials who had been forced upon Hungary. — TR.]
I with corresponding pantomime replied that that need not make any difference between us.
“My father was”— here with both hands he took aim with an imaginary gun.
It now occurred to me why he made all these gestures. Such is often the way with those who have taught themselves a foreign language without a master, and cannot find quickly enough the word they want. I hastened to his assistance.
“Yes, a forester. He had sons”— he lifted up both hands, and then one finger.
“Yes, eleven. I myself was”— he held the palm of his hand quite low down towards the floor.
“Yes, the youngest.”
“My father gave me”— here followed a very suggestive gesture.
“Yes, a very rigorous education.”
“But it was all”— he lightly tapped the hollow of his hand, as much as to say “No good!”
“He wanted me to be”— he laid the palms of his hands together as if in prayer.
“Quite right! I wouldn’t”— a snap of the fingers, and then a lizard-like dart into the palm of the hand.
“You mean to say you took French leave of the Seminary?”
At this we both laughed. The gesture next following — a smack on the palm of the hand illustrated by a little equitation on the back of a chair — gave me to understand that my visitor had then become a soldier.
“At four-and-twenty I was a lieutenant. I lay at Cracow for two years. I served in the Hungarian war from beginning to end. I am now thirty-four years old. And still I am only a lieutenant. Curious, isn’t it?”
I agreed with him that it was certainly most surprising.
“My other comrades — no, not comrades, that’s a French word.”
“Bajtarsai?”94 I suggested.
94 “Your comrades”— the Hungarian equivalent.]
“Yes, of course! my other bajtarsai all became captains and majors, and have got decorations. I’ve nothing! Nothing, I tell you! And I’m pretty plucky too. I’m a good horseman — I’ve never given offence — I understand my duties. What do you think the cause is?”
I really was curious myself to know the cause of this misadventure.
“All through the war I was interned at Temesvar with my squadron. No occasion for displaying valour. Cavalry behind trenches. My comrades all on the battle-field”— he made a swift motion with his hand.
“And fought bravely?” said I, completing the sentence.
“Yes, they fought bravely, whilst we horsemen besieged in the fortress might”— here he put the tips of his thumbs between his teeth and puffed out his cheeks.
“Smoke your pipes?” I suggested.
“Yes, we smoked our pipes.”
Here we both gave way to merriment once more. Again I urged upon my visitor to speak in German, and we could then perhaps get along more easily, but he only replied, “Muszaj!”95 Well, if he knows even that Hungarian word, I thought, he must have his own way, that’s all.
95 A corruption of the German mussen, but as used in Hungarian it expresses the most emphatic necessity. When all other arguments fail, the word muszaj is supposed to carry everything before it. — TR.]
“Yes, I must speak Hungarian, by command of the highest authority.”
With that he seized the lappets of my coat with both hands.
“Come, now! Do you know who is the greatest tyrant in the whole world?”
“Dionysius of Syracuse.”
“Ha! ha! ha! Young blood! ’Tis this!”— and with his index finger he tapped himself between his fourth and fifth ribs on the left-hand side.
“The heart, eh?”
“You’re right. The heart. ’Tis the greatest tyrant. It commands me to speak Hungarian.”
“Then you are in love, eh?”
A gesture with the palm of his hand right up to the chin was the answer.
“Up to the neck, eh?”
“No, over head and ears.”
“With a lovely Hungarian damsel?”
He raised his three fingers closely pressed together to his lips, which were pointed as if to receive a kiss, thereby explaining that she was very lovely.
Then he passed his extended palms softly over his face, then, joining them together beneath his chin, affirmed, so far as I understood him, that she was also young and charming.
Then he pressed his waist with both hands, which meant “slim as a lily stalk.”
After that he cracked his fingers right in front of his eyes, which meant “What eyes!”
Finally he crossed his arms, and immediately afterwards disengaged them again.
“In a word, a ravishing beauty,” said I. “I congratulate you!”
“I think you may.”
“Your tender sentiment is naturally reciprocated?”
“Oho!” and he caught hold of the flat of his sword.
“I did not mean to insinuate the contrary,” I said.
Then he was silent, and began to fumble about his stiff cravat. I saw that he wanted me to ask him some more questions.
“A maiden lady?”
“Then a widow lady?”
“Then it can’t be a lady at all?”
“No, no! What are you thinking of?”
“Then what is she?”
“A lady who has a husband, but yet is not a married lady.”
“Aha! A divorcée?”
“Then the relations between you are quite legitimate.”
At this, my lieutenant of dragoons rose from his chair and stood before me in quite a magisterial position. I also stood up.
“The lady desires you to be her . . . ”— here the word he wanted would not occur to him. He raised the three first fingers of his right hand above his head, like one who is taking an oath. I guessed his meaning.
“A witness to her marriage?”
“No, not that. She used another word.”
“Oh, she meant I was to give her away?”
“Yes, that is it. How I do forget!”
“Then is the chosen of your heart an acquaintance of mine?”
“Naturally. If I were only to mention her first name you would remember at once. Bessy!”
“How red you’ve got! You were in love with her once yourself. I know! She told me. Well, will you give her away?”
“With all my heart.”
Then he caught hold of my hand with both his hands; squeezed my hand violently, and his eyes grew quite tiny with sheer rapture. I believed he would have liked to kiss me; but he had a big nose, and I had a big nose, too, so we could not very well have managed it.
“Then will you allow me to bring in my bride?”
“She is waiting outside.”
“Not on the staircase?”
“Yes, indeed. On the staircase. She won’t come in till she’s quite sure you’ll give her away. She’s a bit shy.”
I immediately hastened to open the door for my hesitating visitor.
It really was Bessy.
It was winter time just then, and she had all sorts of furry garments upon her, and a furred cap on her head; she looked just like a fair Muscovite.
There really seemed to be some sort of coquettish bashfulness in her face.
I couldn’t imagine why. I had seen her face before under many similar circumstances, and after Muki Bagotay, Peter Gyuricza, and Tihamér Rengetegi, Wenceslaus Kvatopil was decidedly an improvement.
The bridegroom remained in the room while I admitted the lady. Then he first craved permission to kiss her hand, and then begged her pardon for kissing it. After that there was absolutely no getting him to take a seat, but he persisted in standing on one spot, leaning over the back of the arm-chair in which his lady sat.
“Have you grasped what my hero has told you?” inquired Bessy, when she had got over her first embarrassment. “Just fancy! he has given me his word as a gentleman that henceforth he’ll never address a word to any Hungarian except in the Hungarian language. And he tortures his Hungarian orderly to death with it to begin with.”
“A most laudable resolve,” I was obliged to answer.
“But now, first of all, let me explain to you why I ask you to put yourself to the inconvenience of giving me away.”
I assured her that to give her away was not an inconvenience, but a pleasure.
“After our last meeting you never anticipated, perhaps, that we should meet again in this life?”
I lifted my head and looked at her with amazement.
“Oh! we can say anything before him” (here she pointed at her bridegroom). “He’s as nice and good a boy as ever lived. I could twist him round my little finger if I liked. You can say anything before him. You know my story, I think, up to the time when I had to go into hiding with Bálványossi after the Revolution. I shouldn’t like you to imagine that I quitted that man from pure lightness of heart. Just fancy! he had the impudence to commit that act of baseness which I mentioned to you: he told the Imperial Commissioner the whole story of the conveying of those despatches, cleared himself from the accusation of that heroic deed, and at the same time denounced me. He justified himself to me on the ground that it was necessary to ‘purify himself,’ in order that he might obtain a theatrical licence, and that they would not impute this little joke to me because I was a woman. But they did impute it! They arrested me, they imprisoned me, and they severely cross-examined me. And I have to thank this worthy young fellow alone for getting off scot-free. He took my part. But for him I should have had to pay most dearly for my heroic exploit. Shouldn’t I, Wenzy?”
The lieutenant hinted, with a deprecatory wave of his hand, that no more need be said about the matter.
“Hence our acquaintance began,” continued the lady, “and this, perhaps, will justify me in your eyes for selecting a foreigner, a foreign officer, as my fiancé. I had very strong reasons, you must admit, for growing cold towards my former hero.”
The fair lady did not appear to be satisfied with the impression that her eyes had made upon me; at least, I had some reason to believe that the following commentary was intended not so much for the delight of her bridegroom as for my own edification.
“Believe me (I am perfectly serious about it), I am not merely grateful to Kvatopil because he has rescued me from my great difficulties, and, what is more, from any further improprieties on the part of that Barabbas Bálványossi; — no, I also esteem him as a noble nature worthy of all respect; from the crown of his head to the tip of his toe he is full of the love of truth, not even in jest would he tell a lie. He is valiant and strong-minded, and at the same time affectionate and tender-hearted. A man of his word, in fact, who does not lightly give his word either. A really model man.”
A pencil was in my hand, and before me was a blank sheet of paper, and I involuntarily scribbled on this piece of paper “Number 4.”
The lady grasped the import of my hieroglyphic and shook her head, but she smiled a little too.
“But he is not like the others,” she insisted; “he is the direct opposite of what ladies’ men think a man should be. It will sound incredible, I know, but it is the simple fact that he has been my visitor these three years. He has come to see me nearly every day during that period, and never has he permitted himself a single bold advance or a single unbecoming expression. Every day I have to tell him, just as if it were the first time, to take a seat, put down his helmet, and place his sword in the corner, and our conversation has never gone beyond the criticism of Schiller’s verses.”
I was bound to admit that this was really an extraordinary case.
“I couldn’t help rallying him about it,” continued the lady; “you know that I am not accustomed to a wooer who imitates the statue of Memnon; and then Kvatopil confessed, with perfect simplicity, that he was afraid of me. ‘If I were as timid on the battle-field,’ said he, ‘as I am in your presence, His Majesty would only give me my deserts by dismissing me from his service.’”
The lieutenant signified by a nod of his head that his words had been correctly reported.
“Finally,” continued Bessy, “I had to ask for his hand — hadn’t I, my friend?”
The bridegroom replied that such had indeed been the case.
“Even then he was quite coy. He pleaded his humble rank. He begged time for consideration. Now, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did.”
“I had to remove his scruples one by one, till at last I brought him to a definite declaration, and he said he would take me to wife. Never have I met with such an officer before.”
Bessy read from my face the expression, “Why bother me with all this?” I never asked about it, and I didn’t care a fig about her affairs.
“Look now,” continued she, in an almost supplicating voice, “I don’t tell you all these things to amuse you, but because I have an earnest request to make of you.”
“So the lieutenant informed me.”
“I don’t mean about giving me away — that is not a serious request. You would do that to oblige any servant of yours. I have a much greater request than that to make. I wish to ask you to be my guardian, my foster-father.”
“I? Your foster-father?”
“Don’t put so much emphasis on the word father. You are four years older than I am, remember.”
“What does a married woman want with a guardian?”
“I assume the case of a married woman who mismanages her property.”
“And do you believe, then, that I am such a great financier?”
“I believe that you are my sincere friend, anyhow. You are my only real friend in the round world who neither asks nor expects anything for his kindness to me. I know it from experience. You have heard, no doubt (and if you haven’t heard, you might easily have guessed it), that my relations have shaken me off. They deny that they ever knew me. My mother has married again and removed to Prague. Every one in whom I would confide tries to get something out of me — either money, or what is more precious than money. Whosoever would attach himself to me is either a swindler, or a seducer, or a parasite. As for myself, I am a stupid, credulous creature, who will never have any brains to bless herself with. I need a strong hand over me, some one to look after my material interests and save me from bankruptcy, some one in whose good-will I may confide. I know very well I might find a more experienced guardian than you, even if I went no further than the civic magistrates; but I could endure dictation from nobody — but you. Your dictation I could put up with. For Heaven’s sake do not let me perish!”
I could not help being sorry for her. I perceived also that she forbore to take my hand. Still, it is a rather ticklish position to become the guardian of a pretty woman, especially a pretty woman of this kind.
“Very well, I don’t mind. But let us consider the whole business seriously. I suppose the lieutenant agrees to it?”
Wenceslaus Kvatopil assured me that he had no will of his own in the matter.
“Well, now, let us consider the merits of the case. Have you still got the money which you deposited in the Vienna savings bank?”
“Yes, and as soon as you are my guardian, I mean to draw it out and deposit it in the bank at Pest.”
“So much the better, it will be more convenient for the quarterly payments of interest. And then, too, you will have to pay out of this amount the usual caution-money required of every officer about to marry.”
“Yes, I know. Six thousand florins.”
“Of course, you might also mortgage your father’s house to this amount.”
“Whichever you think best.”
“I think the latter way will be best, for I foresee that you will get very little profit from your houses, and I want to save as much of your ready money as possible.”
“Save, do you say?” cried Bessy, opening her eyes very wide at this word.
I scratched my head all over (I had lots of hair to scratch in those days). It was my duty as guardian to express my views with perfect candour. At last I found the requisite formula.
“Look now, my sweet ward Bessy, and you also, respected lieutenant, I have seen all sorts of wonders in my lifetime. I have seen a one-legged ballet-dancer who could turn the most difficult pirouettes; I have seen a painter without hands who painted masterly pictures with his feet; I have seen a blind actor who played Hamlet right to the very end. But what I never have seen yet is a cavalry officer without debts.”
At this, the pair of them burst into a loud ha! ha! ha!
“No, no!” cried the bridegroom, “I am not such a wonder as that!”
I now begged him, since we had become so confidential, to be so good as to draw his chair close to the table and put down his beautiful helmet with the black and yellow plumes and go into figures.
“How much do your debts amount to?”
And a very pretty little amount he made of it.
The bridegroom could read from my face that I thought the amount a trifle extravagant for a lieutenant; for that amount Bessy could have got a major at least. He hastened to explain matters.
“I did not incur this large debt myself, the culprit was another lieutenant, a friend of mine, a rich and distinguished young fellow. He got me to write my name to a bill as guarantor of the amount. He was still a minor. I wrote my name, of course — what did I know about it? Suddenly, when my young friend got over head and ears in difficulties, he blew his brains out. His father refused to pay the bill, and so I inherited it from his creditors. Since then I have been paying and paying, but the debt, instead of diminishing, increases, and the terrible boa conscriptor winds itself tighter and tighter round my body.”
A boa conscriptor indeed, was this gigantic conscriptor96 serpent!
96 A translation of the Hungarian word Osszeiro, which means a conscript or schedule of anything, here a schedule of debts.]
At this we all three laughed again, which was rather odd, for there was nothing at all to laugh at.
The long and the short of it all was that after discharging her lover’s debts, and depositing the caution-money, my ward Bessy still had twenty-five thousand florins left.
“All right,” said she, “that’s just why I asked you to be my guardian, for if the money remains in my hands, every bit of it will vanish by the end of the year.”
“I wonder you’ve kept it so long.”
“The wonder is owing to the fact that my mother inhibited the payment of the amount to me, and this embargo can only be removed when I am married to a man of rank and honour.”
“You’ll have to be very economical in your housekeeping,” I said, “not to exceed your income.”
“There’s Kvatopil’s pay, too, and as a cavalry officer he is entitled to free unfurnished quarters.”
“And you’ll be able to put up with an officer’s free quarters?” I said.
“You know very well that to such things” . . . (I saw that she meant to say, “I am used to such things,” and I pulled a wry face. She rightly understood from my pantomime that it would be scarcely proper to mention the events of “Anno Rengetegi” in the presence of her Royal and Imperial97 bridegroom, so, with theatrical savoir-faire, she passed in an instant from the impudent nonchalance of a vivandière to the tender cooing of a turtle-dove) . . . “true love is always ready to sacrifice itself.” And with an enchanting smile she extended her hand to her bridegroom, who raised it with tender enthusiasm to his lips. They were just like turtle-doves.
97 Royal as belonging to the service of the King of Hungary, Imperial as serving the Emperor of Austria.]
I felt no particular pleasure in this version of Romeo and Juliet, indeed I was half-inclined to hiss the performers.
“Before giving you my paternal blessing, my dear children,” said I, “I have one question to ask you. Most honoured Mr. Lieutenant, as I understand that you were originally intended for a priest, I presume that you are a Catholic?”
“A Roman Catholic, yes.”
“During the time you spent in the Seminary, then, have you not so much as learnt that a Catholic is not free to marry a Calvinist woman whom the civil tribunals have divorced from her husband; for, according to Catholic dogma, marriage is a sacrament which the secular power cannot dissolve?”
At this the bridegroom looked very much amazed.
“Neither of us thought of this certainly.”
Bessy suddenly cast a basilisk look at me. Huh! what lightnings flashed in those sea-like eyes!
“Then how are we to get over that?” inquired the bridegroom of me, with childlike helplessness.
“Why, by your becoming a Calvinist, I suppose.”
“A Calvi . . . ” he was already outside the door when he said the . . . “nist!” He caught up his helmet and bolted without saying good-bye to any one. Clerk Coloman told me afterwards he had never seen a dragoon in such a hurry.
Bessy he left behind on my hands.
The young lady was in a terrible rage.
“It was pure malice on your part,” cried she, “to do me out of my bridegroom like that! What do you mean by it? To serve me such a nasty trick as that!”
I justified myself as best I could.
“He would have had to know it sooner or later. The priest would have refused to unite you.”
“You should have left that to me. If once I had paid his debts, his honour as a gentleman would have bound him to make this sacrifice for me; he could not have got out of it then.”
I was forced to admit that I had acted very clumsily. I humbly begged her pardon. I would never do it again. Her next bridegroom might be a Mohammedan, for all that I cared.
“You never could speak sensibly to me. No matter! I’ll bring Wenceslaus Kvatopil back here one of these days.”
And off she went in a huff.
This interruption had annoyed me. I had lots to do. I had to write the addresses of our subscribers on the covers of the neatly folded newspapers. This was not an ideal occupation, especially when one had to paste on the wrappers as well, which it was also my business to do. Some proof-sheets were also awaiting me with a lot of printers’ errors. It was a realization of the proverb, “When the church is poor, the parson tolls the bell himself.” In my leisure hours, however — my time of repose — I went on with my romance, “A Hungarian Nabob”; the idea of the principal character I had borrowed from a story of my wife’s.
A couple of weeks elapsed. One evening, when I was hesitating whether I should go and see about my oil-lamp myself, or wait till clerk Coloman returned home from the post, or the chamber-maid from the theatre, whither she had gone to carry my consort her costume in a basket, a violent ringing began outside. I had to go and open the door myself.
To my great surprise, I saw Bessy before me with her lieutenant on her arm.
Wenceslaus Kvatopil was bubbling over with affability.
“Here I am again, sir. They have arrested me, and put me in chains. I must surrender.”
Yes, I thought, when the starving garrison is reduced to horse-flesh.
“The siege was vigorous. Such batteries. Look! Those eyes! Congreve rockets are nothing in comparison. The star battery is already taken.”
“The firing must have been terrible indeed.”
“And now I must ask you once more to be my witness.”
“You mean your bride’s witness?”
“No, mine. First you must come with me to the priest to inform him that I have renounced the Catholic faith.”
“Yes, and from conviction.”
“Would you take a chair, please?”
“From absolute conviction.”
“Bessy is a more clever arguer than any missionary; an energetic propagandist.”
“And if I were to be damned on the spot, if I were to lose my hope of eternal salvation, I should be ready to sacrifice that also for those dear, lovely eyes.”
“Come, come, Mr. Lieutenant,” I said, “pray don’t talk so wildly.”
“But I mean what I say — I am ready to become a Mohammedan for her sake.”
“I can quite believe it.”
“Then you will be my witness at the priest’s?”
“Pardon me. ’Tis a serious matter. I honour my own religion as much as other sects honour theirs, yet I am no proselytizer. Do you wish to become a Calvinist from sincere conviction?”
At this word he leaped furiously from his seat.
“A Calvinist? Certainly not! Heaven forbid!”
“Then what do you want to be?”
“I want to be a Lutheran.”
“’Tis all one.”
“The devil it is! We at Leutomischl hold the Calvinists to be infidels.”
“Your bride might have told you, I think, that this is not true.”
At this, Bessy again intervened. She implored me prettily not to deny her this little kindness. Kvatopil had only consented to be converted because they have crosses in the Lutheran churches and believe in the sacraments, so that by joining them a man does not risk losing his heavenly hopes so much, and the Commander-inchief would not be down upon him so fiercely as if he were to go over to the Calvinist Kuruczes.98 The end of it all was that I, a Calvinist presbyter, had to introduce a newly-converted soul into the Lutheran Church.
98 Kurucz, a name originally given to the Transylvanian insurgents under Francis Rákóczy; they were mostly Protestants. — TR.]
I really must have been a very good sort of fellow formerly, that is to say, before my heart was hardened.
At last every obstacle was overcome. I consented to give away my ward, Wenceslaus Kvatopil’s bride. Bessy received from her excellent mother (who was now a general’s wife) intimation that she had withdrawn her sequestration from the money in the Vienna bank; the caution-money was deposited, the boa conscriptors were satisfied, and nothing hindered us from going to church.
The marriage party, besides the bride and bridegroom, consisted of two witnesses; the bridegroom’s witness was a battalion commander, a major who brought his wife with him.
And here, perhaps, every one will ask me why the wife of the other witness was not there also?
It is an awkward question.
I might, I know, summarily dispose of the whole matter by saying that my wife had just gone, by special invitation, to act at Szabadka; she had been invited, but could not come. But this answer, I know, is unsatisfactory.
I would, however, first of all, lay down this axiom: “An honourable husband should give his wife no occasion for jealousy; but neither ought he to make her jealous without occasion.”
The sacred truth is that I had never mentioned Bessy’s name in my wife’s hearing. (“Slipper-hero!”) Did she know of her? I don’t know. She was much too proud to have ever shown it if she did.
I had Bessy’s portrait, and it was in the drawer of my writing-table. It was there even when I got married. And if it had found its way into any one’s hands, I could not have said that it was the portrait of my grandmother. But this is what did happen. When the Russian armies broke into the kingdom, I, foreseeing the end of the unequal struggle, shouldered my musket, tied on my sword, fastened my knapsack round my neck, took leave of my wife, and went forth to seek the camp of Görgey — on foot. On my way I met Paul Nyáry. “Whither away so armed to the teeth, brother Maurice?” said he. “I am going to die for my country,” I replied, with tragic pathos. “And what have you got in your knapsack?” “A ham.” “Well, before dying for your country, let us have a bit of that ham of yours together.” With that he helped me up into his car, and in the car beside him was already sitting Joseph Patay — two members of the Hungary Government at Debreczin, in fact. I was curious enough to inquire whither we were going, whereupon Nyáry replied:
“The dog that bolts to Szeged town
T’wards Buda lets his tail hang down.”99
99 Buda and Szeged being in diametrically opposite directions.]
Even with the danger of instant death hanging over his head, his bitter irony never forsook him. So I went on with Nyáry to Szeged. A week afterwards my wife followed me. Our house she had entrusted to poor old Dame Kovacs. The clever comic actress had no need to fear the Cossacks. When, however, the Russians occupied Buda–Pest, and the rigorous order was issued that all arms, uniforms, and Hungarian bank-notes were to be given up, whilst every one in possession of a prohibited object or a revolutionary proclamation was to be tried by court-martial and shot, then indeed the good old dame ransacked all the drawers of my writing-table, and crumpling up into a heap all she found there, including Petöfi’s correspondence, a letter of Klapka’s, the whole of my diary which I had written during the Revolution, with innumerable and invaluable data, pitched the whole behind the fire, and so they disappeared. In this great auto-da-fé Bessy’s portrait was also reduced to ashes. I therefore have my suspicions that something was known about it, but nothing was ever said to me on the subject.
So that, you see, was why only I was present at Bessy’s wedding.
The rendezvous took place in her apartments. Here I had the opportunity of making the acquaintance of my fellow-witness, the major of dragoons, and a very genial man he was. He was a good copy of a genuine Hungarian lord-lieutenant of a county. Nothing but cordial hilarity and jovial merriment, you would never have taken him for a soldier, least of all for an Austrian soldier. He blackguarded the “Bach100-hussars,” but had nothing but praise for the Hungarians. He had not been shut up in Temesvar like the lieutenant, but had been fighting in Italy, and had only just come hither. He had the habit of seasoning his discourse with Hungarian proverbs and pithy aphorisms. He introduced his wife to me also. “My domestic dragon,” he said; he could not dispense with his jesting even then. The lady, however, clearly did not belong to the dragon species. On the contrary, she was a remarkably pleasant woman, in the prime of life, with really handsome features. One thing I will say of her: when once she began to talk she never knew when to leave off. Her conversation knew neither rest nor pause. In my eyes, however, this is an advantage, for it is my invariable practice to entertain my lady friends by letting them talk to their hearts’ content, while I listen.
100 The reactionary Austrian Minister who was mainly responsible for the attempted denationalization of Hungary. — TR.]
When the bride was still in her boudoir, the major’s lady made me thoroughly acquainted with the family affairs of all the officers’ wives in the regiment. When the bride appeared in all her bridal glory, accompanied by the bridegroom, who held his helmet in one hand and a gigantic bouquet of camellias in the other, the exchange of notes between the witness of the bridegroom and the witness of the bride took place with all the usual formalities.
Towards me the major acted with the studied courtesy of a high Government official, but towards the lieutenant he acted the part of a senior officer from beginning to end. He ordered him about as if he were sitting on horseback and on the point of setting out for scout duty. And the lieutenant obeyed him like a machine. In fact, the bridegroom quite gave me the impression of a man sitting in his saddle at the head of his squadron. The small arms were beginning to fire, the musket balls were piping about his ears, the hissing grenades strike the ground in front of him, and he cannot so much as move his head aside till the liberating command sounds: “Forward! March! Draw your swords! On ’em! Cut, slash!” Stop! What am I saying? Here was no question of cutting and slashing! No; press her to your breast, rather! Is she not your bride?
Finally, at the word of command, we reached the altar.
It was all over. I had given Bessy away. She was married.
She bore up very gallantly; but then, of course, she had had a deal of practice.
But as for the bridegroom, every one of his movements had to be by order; he was accustomed to have it so. He was so moved indeed that he could scarcely draw off his glove, and would have forced the bride to stand on the right hand, whereas the priest wished her to pass to the left; and when the ceremony was over, he turned towards his own witness with the expression of a delinquent condemned to death who has now no hope left save in the mercy of the Court of Appeal.
“We have been married with our left hands,” he stammered.
His best man reassured him: “Have no fear of that, my son. ’Tis the usual thing. The bride always stands on the left, but your right hands were duly placed within each other.”
Worthy Kvatopil did not seem to know which was his right hand and which was his left.
On the way home the happy bride and bridegroom sat together in a little coach.
A splendid banquet awaited the guests in Bessy’s lodgings. The table was already spread.
When the happy husband had conducted his darling yoke-fellow into the midst of us, he, without more ado, flung himself on the sofa, and, hiding his face in the palms of both hands, began to weep bitterly. Such a wonder as that is surely not to be seen for either love or money! That a bridegroom should weep fit to break his heart immediately after the marriage ceremony, and bewail the loss of his bachelordom in floods of bitter tears!
The two ladies, however, took him in hand between them, and began to entreat and console him, but he could not stifle this outburst of feeling. The major also reassured him very prettily: “Come, come, my dear friend, you need not take it so tragically. Look at me now! I’ve been through it all! Look how well I get on with my domestic dragon!” This, however, was poor balm to him in his great affliction. At last the major fairly lost his temper. “A thousand Turkish skulls! What’s this, lieutenant? Do you wish to regale us with a specimen of the higher morality? Bombs and grenades! Embrace your wife, sir, immediately!”
Bessy looked at me as if she were on the point of weeping. I pitied her from the bottom of my heart.
“Mr. Lieutenant,” I said, “have you ever learnt English?”
The newly-married husband was amazed.
“Yes,” said he.
“From Ollendorf’s grammar?”
“Do you recollect exercise No. 2: ‘Why does the Captain weep? — Because the Englishman has no bread.’— Well, then, let us give the Englishman some bread.”
At this every one burst out laughing. The lieutenant also laughed.
And so this scene came to an end. We sat down to table, and amidst the merry ring of glasses we made a good deal of fun out of the odd and mystical question of Ollendorf’s, “Why does the Captain weep?” and the still more curious answer, “Because the Englishman has no bread.”
The lieutenant’s frame of mind remained an inexplicable enigma to me. In after years I discovered its true solution.
The cause of his weeping was altogether different from what Ollendorf had supposed.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10