The most beautiful comet I ever saw was the comet of 1858. It was visible in the sky for a whole fortnight, from October 1st to 15th, and all the time the weather was as fine as could be, not a cloud in the sky. And meanwhile the comet drew steadily nearer to the earth, growing bigger and bigger, and in shape it exactly resembled a Turkish scimitar; at last it was quite visible in broad daylight.
I had very good cause for remembering this comet so well. In September of the same year I was seized with hæmorrhage of the lungs, an alarming symptom in a young man. Our doctor, Sebastian Andrew Kovacs of blessed memory, said that it was not medicine that I wanted, but change of air.
I submitted to his directions, and at the beginning of the autumn I undertook an audacious expedition — to visit the Western Carpathian Alps on horseback. Our good old friend Gabriel Török (he had been a Government Commissioner during the Revolution) and his two sons were my guides, for they had been all through those beautiful regions103 before. Five to six hours in the saddle every day for a fortnight, through pathless forests, up and down steep rocky precipices, wading through streams and mountain torrents, dancing of an evening at the balls frequently given in our honour, in the big-heeled boots that we had worn on horseback during the day, gobbling bacon as we stopped to rest on the fresh grass, and washing it down with a gurgling drink out of our brandy-flasks — that is what I call a radical cure for inflammation of the lungs.
103 Jókai has immortalized these wonderful landscapes in Az Erdelyi arány Kóra, perhaps his best descriptive romance.]
It cured me, anyhow.
With my suite, which gradually swelled into ten strong, I visited Bihar, and found out the rocky grave beneath which reposes my good friend Paul Vasváry, who died such a heroic death.104 I also saw the Hungarian California, the gold-diggings of Abrudbanya and Verespatak. I painted that marvellous basalt hill Detonátá, than which it is impossible to imagine a more interesting formation. I was in Csetátye Máré, that overwhelming relic of the Roman power, a gigantic gold-producing hill entirely hollowed out by the slavish hands of a subjugated race. When they would have dug still deeper, the top of the scooped-out mountain fell in and buried beneath it both slaves and slave-holders. And there it stands now, a gaping chasm, like one of the circular Mountains of the Moon.
104 One of the victims of the Revolution.]
I love to look back on this delightful tour; and the lovely comet accompanied me in the sky all the time.
The result of my journey was that I returned home with perfectly healthy lungs. From the comet, moreover, I borrowed the idea of starting a weekly comic paper under the title of Ustökös.105 And this paper gave me something to do for the next fifteen years. During all that time it had great influence. With a preliminary and a supplementary censureship to deal with, it was only possible to say a word of truth or a word of encouragement in verse or by way of anecdote. Sometimes a printer’s error served our turn instead. For instance, to the question, “What shall a Hungarian man do now?” the answer was, “Várjon és türjön” (“Wait and suffer”); but by a printer’s error the “türjön” became “türr jön,” which the reader, in his own mind, would read as “Türr jön” (“Let Türr come”), and associate it at once with the popular ballad sung from one end of the kingdom to the other, and which begins, “Hoz Türr Pizta puskát!” (“Pizta Türr he brings his musket!”)
105 This comic paper still exists, but M. Jókai is no longer its editor.]
But the comet had another signification also.
In those days war was our universal prayer. And the following year actually brought it.
Napoleon III.‘s historical new year’s greeting settled the dread destiny of the year.
One day my lieutenant again came to see me; I was still his guardian. His face beamed with joy.
“God be with you, my friend!”
It was a strange beginning.
“I suppose you’ve got your promotion in your pocket?”
“Not that, but an order to march. Our whole regiment goes to Lombardy, and perhaps even farther. There will be war with Italy, but pray don’t say anything about it. ’Tis a State secret.”
“I knew it long ago.”
“From the Chief of the Police himself. One day he summoned before him all the newspaper editors in Buda–Pest and sternly commanded them not to write a single letter as to the preparations for the impending war. And thus we heard all about the coming campaign from the very best authority.”
“Well, they certainly might have acted more discreetly than that.”
“Where, then, shall I send you your remittances in the immediate future?”
“Nowhere at all, dear friend. Bessy will remain here. Nobody is allowed to take his wife with him, not even the Colonel; whilst from the very day on which the war begins I shall receive double pay. So give the money to Bessy.”
“I’ll send it to her.”
“I say give it to her. Take it yourself personally.”
“I am much obliged for your confidence.”
“It is more than confidence. I wish you, while I am away, to go and see her: be her guest every day, and make yourself quite at home.”
“The deuce! Do you consider me, then, one of those ninnies to whom one can confide a pretty woman à l’outrance?”
“Au contraire! I am convinced of the contrary. I know that in such matters no reliance can be placed upon mere honour. The only thing a man expects from his worthy comrades is discretion. I am well informed of everything. My wife has confessed everything to me: the little wooden hut on the Comorn island, and then the visit in your private room, the meeting at the Pagan Altar. . . . He, he, he! we know all the circumstances quite well!”
(It was an unheard of case. To think that a pretty woman should become the trumpet of her own notoriety!)
“But, my dear comrade, on my word of honour . . . ”
“Here we have nothing to do with words of honour. You were in love with her once, and I need have no further fear of any one who used to love Bessy. Jupiter was the chief of the gods, and had the loveliest of women for his wife, yet he didn’t keep the ten commandments. ’Twill be better to pour pure wine into our glasses, I think.”
“But, I repeat, I don’t want to pour any wine at all into my glass.”
“Stuff and nonsense! We know all about that. Bessy makes a fool of every man, and showers contempt on her worshippers. Of you alone does she always speak with rapture. Whenever your name is mentioned she sighs deeply, and says, ‘Ah, and I might have been his, too!’”
“That proves all the more that our relations have been purely Platonic.”
“Very good indeed! What I like about you best of all is the serious face with which you are always able to defend your point of view. Another man in your place would rejoice at his good fortune; you nobly deny yourself. You will compromise nobody. You have that advantage over all my other good friends. I would rather entrust her to you than to anybody.”
“But why not rather trust her to herself? Foster within her the sentiment of fidelity. Write to her every day from the camp.”
“Nay, my friend, a letter won’t do. I can’t be always scribbling and raving to her. Bessy is not one of the romantic sort. You know all her various temperaments.”
“Indeed, I know nothing of the sort.”
“Well, I do then. I know that the moment I’ve cast my right foot over my horse’s back she will be unfaithful to me. It is as much her nature to be so as it is my nature to fight and yours to write. When I can’t sit on horseback I’m ill, when you can’t write a romance you’re ill, and when a pretty woman is not flirting she gets the migraine. Your hand upon it that you will visit my Bessy while I am far away and comfort her!” And the tears really started to his eyes.
Now, here was a situation which is not to be found in any romance, and which the reader will, I know, only accept as true under protest. A soldier departing for the wars forcibly compels his good friend to try and comfort the pretty wife he leaves behind him. But that that friend should kick and struggle with all his might against such a marvellous piece of good fortune is a fact which I am sure I shall never get the enlightened public to believe anyhow.
“My friend,” said Kvatopil finally, drying the tears from his eyes and violently pressing one of my hands in one of his, “you know that we valiant horsemen, dragoons and uhlans, are going down to Italy; the hussars have gone already. The volunteers will take our place here in garrison-duty. During our absence down there they will be raging furiously here. If I thought that mine would be the shame to see my place here taken by one of those red-braided, chicory hussars, I should be capable of blowing out first my wife’s brains and then my own. Don’t allow such a thing to happen. If one of those cockatoos were to see your astrachan pelisse with the large chalcedon buttons of yours hanging up in my ante-chamber, he would be scared into flight at once.”
At this we both laughed heartily.
We took leave of each other very prettily. Kvatopil with the fairest hopes followed the glorious career which promised him fame and promotion.
The whole kingdom waited for news from the seat of war with rapt attention.
Our parting had taken place at the end of April. In May, the official newspapers gave us a brief account of the battle of Montebello. It was not a regular pitched battle, but a forced reconnaissance by the Austrian general with a jumble of some 12,000 men of all arms. Both the Austrians and the French fought bravely. The official communiqué did not give further details.
I, however, through the kind offices of a courier sent from the seat of war to the Commandant of Buda, also received a private letter from the field of battle. Kvatopil wrote thus:—
“MY DEAR FRIEND —
“I hasten to write to you after the battle. The whole of our regiment was under fire, repulsed the French chasseurs and pursued them into Montebello. I received a slight wound in the forehead, which did not, however, prevent my further fighting. The Commander-inchief immediately promoted me to the rank of captain, and praised my valour in front of the regiment. Make known the joyous news to my dear wife. I am not able to write to her. A thousand kisses to the pair of you.
“WENCESLAUS KVATOPIL, Captain.”
But there was a postscript also.
“P.S. — Show this letter to nobody, and don’t let it outof your hand. Destroy it when you have read it through, for, if it were discovered, it would bring me into the greatest trouble, as it is absolutely forbidden to write letters from the camp. That is why I have addressed it to you instead of to my wife, for I can count upon your discretion. In her triumph she would show the letter everywhere. But you burn it. — W. K.”
Now, this letter made it my positive duty to visit Bessy, for I could only tell her about it by word of mouth. I might indeed have destroyed Kvatopil’s letter, then written its entire purport to his wife in a letter of my own, but in that case she would certainly have carried my letter from pillar to post, and the mischief would have been the same.
If I went to her in broad daylight, every one would see me. I could not go incognito, for I was as well known as a bit of bad money. Besides that, the Hungarian national costume was in fashion just then. Every one who wore it might expect to have his name bawled after him in the street for a week afterwards at the very least. If, on the other hand, I were to go to Bessy when it was dark, and they were lighting the gas-lamps, that would only make matters worse.
And again, it would be an inconceivable absurdity not to suppose that one or other of Bessy’s fair neighbours would not be looking out of the windows of the house opposite, with the most persistent curiosity, to see who was going in at the gate. And if but one of them saw me, the whole theatre would know all about it on the morrow.
A husband with a conscience (and there are such husbands) ought in such cases to stand before his wife with a demure countenance, and say to her honestly and openly: “My dear angel, I am obliged to pay a disagreeable visit to this or that lady, and I don’t half like it; I wish you would come too.” Whereupon the wife will naturally be quite magnanimous and say: “Go along by yourself, my dear; you know that I am not a bit jealous.”
But my wife happened, just then, to be away acting at Szeged, and would not be back for a week. That would be an aggravating circumstance in the case of a visit.
While I was thus debating with myself, a smart little maid-servant came to my door. She had a covered market-basket on her arm, and she drew out of it a neatly-folded little billet-doux, which she placed in my hand. The note smelt of celery, under which it had been put. I recognised the handwriting of the address, it was Bessy’s. I opened and read it. The maid stood there and waited. At last she grew impatient of the long delay, and said: “I am waiting for an answer.”
“Oh, so you’re still there? Stop a bit!”
I read the letter once more.
“MY DEAR GUARDIAN,
“Very serious business makes me send to you. Come and see me. As your honoured wife is now engaged on a provincial tour, can’t you come and dine with me today? We shall be all by ourselves.
Was there ever an odder reason? —“As your honoured wife is now engaged on a provincial tour”! No doubt she found that out in the Fövárosi Lapok.106 But the conclusion: “therefore you can come and dine with me today”! And finally: “We shall be all by ourselves”! If that wasn’t a temptation, I don’t know what is.
106 News of the Capital, a popular newspaper of the period.]
I began to walk up and down.
The maid waited to see if I was going to count how many paces it was from the window to the door. At last she grew importunate.
“Is there any answer, please? I have to go home and cook the dinner.”
“Ah, yes, of course! Greet your mistress from me, and tell her that I’ll come and see her in the forenoon tomorrow.”
“But I want to know whether you are coming to dinner, that I may arrange my cooking accordingly.”
“True! Then say I’ll come to dinner.”
In Bessy’s house the custom seemed to prevail for the mistress to dine six days of the week with Duke Humphrey, and then on the seventh, her at-home day, to make a great parade before her guests.
I was now running into the very centre of danger.
I could not possibly back out of this engagement.
“A serious business, eh?” I know it was serious enough to me.
An ideal of my youth, and lovelier now than ever, with a husband of her own too, and that husband a fine manly fellow. So far from being jealous, he had openly entrusted me with the consolation of his sorrowing spouse. And I am the last person in the world to be enrolled in the Order of Anchorites.
I candidly admit that I am not a bit better than my neighbours.
So I tricked myself out finely. I put on my new coffee-coloured clothes with the antique buttons; I neatly tied my embroidered cravat; I drew on my Kordofan-leather boots with the silver spurs; I fastened a crane’s plume in my new spiral hat.
This was the audacious fashion of the year, and within a twelvemonth this costume was worn in the whole kingdom. And after that, I went to the barber’s and he twisted my thick blonde hair into masterly ringlets. Aggravating circumstances, the whole lot of them!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56