How my heart beat when I set forth on my expedition!
On the way from my dwelling to Bessy’s lodgings my ill fate brought me face to face with all the veteran actresses of the National Theatre, and they all stopped me and asked where I was going. They all remarked that I was very stylishly got up, and they all shook their fingers at me, and said: “Fie, fie! you straw-widower!”
The devil must really have been in me to make me take the trouble to have my hair so prettily frizzled.
I was just about to dash hastily up the staircase of Bessy’s dwelling, when whom should I run into but Tóni Sági. It only needed that. He came from the same town as I did, was a common friend of all my friends, and was about as reticent of news as a town-crier.
“Your servant, friend! Why, you’re quite a stranger. I’ve just come from Bessy. The young lady is in a very bad humour. She as good as pitched me out of doors. She must be expecting some one. Perhaps you are the very man, eh?”
It was all up with me now! To-morrow every newspaper in the town will report my visit here. For “quod licet bovi, non licet Jovi.”
If I were to turn back now, it would only make matters worse.
I hastened up the steps. Bessy lived on the third floor. . . . To get to her rooms I had to follow the open corridor which led down to the courtyard. I passed on my way the lodgings of a milliner, a female pawnbroker, and a lady who supplied families with servant-maids, and all three poked their heads out of their windows and watched me disappear.
On reaching Bessy’s number, I found, tugging at the bell-rope, a red-peluched young coxcomb. The door was about a fourth part open, and the face of the vicious looking cook was protruding out of it. She dismissed the visitor with curt ceremony.
“My mistress is not at home!”
We nearly trod each other’s spurs off as we cannoned against each other in the narrow corridor.
A minute afterwards the countenance of the self-same cook, rounded into complete amiability, again appeared, and she said to me:
“Would you do us the honour to walk in?”
And she held the door wide open for me.
You should have seen the face which my red furbelowed gentleman made at this. It was not enough for him to open his eyes and mouth at me; he stuck his pince-nez on the bridge of his nose as well.
That will mean a duel for me tomorrow.
Meantime, however, I was master of the situation.
I had to go through the kitchen to get to Bessy’s room. The kitchen was also the ante-chamber; you hung up your overcoat there. Her cook was her only servant, parlour-maid, chamber-maid, everything.
“Would you kindly walk into the saloon?” urged the servant.
“But announce me beforehand. Here’s my card.”
“Beg pardon, but I can’t take it; both my hands are doughy.” (She was in the middle of kneading some dough cake or other with butter.) “Would you kindly put your card between my teeth?”
Thus, like a retriever, she carried in my card between her teeth. A moment afterwards she cried:
“Come in now, please!”
I entered the room which the servant had called a saloon.
Nobody was there. I looked around me. I found nothing there of the luxurious splendour which had surrounded the young lady formerly in her mother’s house; but for all that everything was neat and pretty. Embroideries, a music-stand with songs upon it, and a fiddle, flower-pots, a cage with exotic birds, Wallachian Katrinczas,107 Szekler pottery, a few handsomely bound books — all these were so disposed as to fill the mind with a sense of refined elegance combined with the utmost simplicity.
A curtained door led from the saloon into another room — possibly a bed-chamber.
In a few minutes this door opened and the fair lady fluttered in.
It did not escape my attention that the moment she entered she turned her head on one side, and contracted her eyebrows as if to bid some one else remaining behind there to keep quiet. The momentary opening of the door also permitted me to see that in the direction in which she had looked was a tall tester bed with the curtains drawn close.
The moment, however, that she had shut the door behind her and turned towards me, the face of the lovely lady became all amiability. She hastened up to me and pressed my hand.
“It was very nice of you to come and see me. Don’t be angry with me for giving you the trouble.”
The lady was now more amiable than ever.
She was in the simplest stay-at-home toilet. The only ornament on her head was her own bright silky hair, twisted up into a knot and tied at the top with a ribbon.
She looked just as she was ten years before, a little girl of sixteen.
Her whole being recalled to me her childish days. There was the same candid, guileless look; those open eyes through which you could read into her very soul; the same artless mouth.
She invited me to sit down. She took my hat and laid it on the table.
“I suppose you’ll remain to dinner? I have told the cook to prepare your favourite dish.”
“Then you know what it is?”
“Why, of course! Beans with pig’s ear. Why, all your admirers throughout the kingdom know that.”
I had now good reason to be proud! My nation, then, has some regard for me, after all. To others it presents bays, to me —beans.108
108 In Hungarian the resemblance is closer still, babo meaning bean, and babér, laurel.]
“In that case I’ll remain,” I said.
“In Kvatopil’s time I was never permitted to cook beans, for he maintained that they make a man stupid.”
“On the contrary. Pythagoras assures us that the bean contains the same component parts as the human brain.”
Having thus rehabilitated the bean, I reverted to the real motive of my visit there.
“I should have come to visit you today even without a special invitation.”
“Was there any special reason, then, why I should occupy a place in your thoughts?”
“I have received a letter from Italy, the contents of which will greatly interest you.”
At these words she looked at me as coldly as if she had become an alabaster statue.
“So I believe. On the 20th instant there was a battle on the Mincio, at which your husband distinguished himself.”
“Really?” said the lady mechanically.
(“Really?”— In that tone? It was rather odd. However, I went on.)
“Nay, in the heat of the combat he was even wounded.”
(I calculated surely on the dramatic effect of these words. I fancied that the tender spouse would leap to her feet, pale, ready to faint, wringing her hands, till at last, amidst sobs, the name of the adored husband would burst forth from her lips: “Oh! my Wenceslaus! Oh! my Kvatopil!” But she did not so much as turn her head round.)
“Indeed?” she said, with complete sangfroid.
Just as if it were an every-day occurrence for a beloved husband to be wounded in battle.
I was offended. Such ungrateful indifference I had never met with before. How was I to go on? I had calculated that when the despairing consort had wept and sobbed her fill, I should hasten to console her.
“It is true,” said I, “that his wound is not sufficiently dangerous to prevent him from continuing in the field.”
“I can easily believe it,” replied the lady, with a shrug of the shoulders.
Now this was a want of feeling worthy of an alligator! Surely she had the nerves of a rhinoceros! I was not prepared for this reception. “I can easily believe it!” Was that all?
Well, then, if our tender feelings are so hermetically sealed, we must try what more drastic means will do. We must appeal to other sentiments. Vanity, for instance, is a sentiment which never can be blunted.
So I moved forward my heavy artillery.
“Lieutenant Kvatopil,” I said, “was called to the front and made a captain straight off for heroic valour in the field.”
But even at this the lovely lady did not fling herself on my neck. She did not even utter a sound, but contracted the corners of her mouth. What did that mean? When you tell a lieutenant’s wife that from today she has a right to the title Mrs. Captain; that every one who meets her in the street and congratulates her will address her as, “Frau Rittmeisterin,” while the other lieutenants’ wives naturally burn with secret envy; that she may now print her corresponding rank on her visiting cards — when you tell her all this, and even then no impression is produced, and the cherry lips do not expand with joy, revealing the sparkling, pearly teeth and the dimples on the sunbright face; when, instead of that, she purses up her mouth so nastily and gives herself a double chin — what are you to think? There is nothing so hideous as a pretty woman with a double chin. A double chin makes a woman look absolutely old.
I was quite confused. What am I to do to amuse her now? Should I talk about the weather?
“May I congratulate you?” I said, seizing her hand.
But not only did she not press my hand in return, as she ought to have done; on the contrary, she irritably drew it back and turned aside her head.
Suddenly a light flashed through my brain, a light kindled by my immeasurable self-conceit. “Why go on praising the distant husband,” said I to myself, “when you yourself are present? Do you think she invited you to dinner to sing the praises of Wenceslaus Kvatopil?”
I drew my chair nearer to the sofa on which Bessy was sitting, and airily passed my hand through my frizzled locks.
Bessy observed the movement, and quickly turned her face towards me. A mocking smile suddenly lighted up her face, a smile from which a man can read a whole chapter in a moment. That is something like stenography.
“Ha, ha, sir! then we have come thither with that thought, have we? We have had our hair frizzled, eh? We have decked ourselves out to be irresistible, I know?”
A thousand mocking fish-tailed nixies were wriggling about in those sea-like eyes.
It was a murderous sort of smile.
I was conscious of having been taken down pretty considerably. Here was I (quite contrary to my usual custom) tricked and furbished up like a “petit maître,” while she, the lady, received me in her simplest barracan house-dress, without any finery, and with a smile she discharged at me the saying of the great poet:
“O Vanity! thy name is woman!”
But why, then, had she sent for me?
Why had she driven away one visitor and denied herself to another if not for my sake?
Perhaps for the sake of a third party who had already arrived? When she came out of her boudoir she seemed to me to be signalling with her eyebrows at some one.
I quickly pulled myself together. I fancy I must have been very red in the face, and I certainly had good reason to be ashamed of myself.
I saw that I had not been able to reap laurels in the rôle of Don Juan, so I began to take up the part of Tartuffe. Let us play the righteous judge!
“Perhaps I have not come at a very convenient time?”
“On the contrary, I asked you to come at this time.”
“On a serious business, eh?”
“A serious business for me.”
“But isn’t what I’ve just been saying to you serious?”
“Yet you received it with a very queer face.”
“I listened seriously enough.”
“But the affair had its cheerful aspect also, surely?”
The fair dame made a contemptuous clicking with her tongue.
“Don’t you feel any interest, then, in Kvatopil’s heroism, wounds, distinction, and promotion?”
“No!” she replied resolutely, almost snapping my sentence in two. Her eyes sparkled like burning naphtha lakes.
“No?” I repeated, in my amazement. “You take no interest in your husband’s fate whether it be bad or good? You feel neither hot nor cold on the subject?”
“But you parted in the greatest affection when he went to the wars?”
“And it is scarcely a month since then.”
“Only twenty-nine days, I’ve counted them.”
“And meanwhile winter has come?”
After that she began to laugh maliciously. She leaped to her feet and rumpled my frizzly hair with her fingers.
“Let’s leave the matter till after dinner; then I’ll tell you everything. But don’t let us spoil a good dinner in the meantime. You are quite horrified at me now, and fancy that I’ve laid a trap for you. You will see later on that this serious business of mine is not a joke. Let us leave it till after the black coffee.”
I revived again. The lady was capricious, and it suited her.
“I was determined to give you a good dinner. I owe you your revenge. It is a long time since we dined together. Last time I was your guest. Don’t you remember? At the Pagan Altar. I never ate so heartily. What splendid toast you had! And the bacon, too, broiled on a stick! Why, I’ve got the taste of that good red pepper of yours in my mouth to this day! And now I mean to give you hospitality that you will remember for a long time!”
This again was delightfully reassuring! She was of the true cat species — she purrs and fondles, but one must be continually on one’s guard against her claws.
“Come now, help me to lay the table! My cook has enough to do without that.”
So I had to help her lay the table, for the saloon was the dining-room also. One had only to remove the books, porcelain vases, and china knick-knacks from the table in front of the sofa, and then cover it with the table-cloth.
I was curious to see how many she would lay for. Only for two. Two plates, two knives, forks and spoons, and two glasses.
But how about that third person, that person in the bedroom yonder? Or had I rightly interpreted that peculiar expression of hers? I was beginning to think the whole thing was pure hallucination on my part.
Suddenly the scraping of a cautiously-moved chair sounded from the boudoir.
I saw that the lady was considerably put out, and felt decidedly uncomfortable. She wrathfully pressed her lips together.
“Have you any one in the next room?” I inquired, in a stern, judicial voice.
“I have!” she replied defiantly.
“Madame!” I exclaimed, in virtuous high dudgeon.
“Would you like to know who is inside?” she cried, in an offended tone.
“Oh, dear, no! I’m not a bit curious,” said I, and began looking about for my hat and stick.
“But I wish you to know,” she cried indignantly, barring my way, and, seizing my hand, she led me to the door of the bedroom, and hastily flung it open. In the room a blonde young lady stood before me gazing at me with wondering large blue eyes.
Bessy introduced this lady to me.
“Madame Wenceslaus Kvatopil, from Cracow.”
Then she pulled aside the bed-curtains, and on the bed was lying a little girl about eleven years of age.
“This is Wenceslaus Kvatopil’s daughter. Poor things! let us leave them alone!”
For at least a minute I felt as if some magic power were whirling me round and round the globe with it from the North Pole to the Equator, and back again.
How I got out of that room into the other I really cannot say. Before me continually were the faces of that large-eyed, timid-looking woman and the little girl.
I heard the sound of weeping behind me.
It was Bessy. She had hidden her face in her hands, and was sobbing.
“Oh, how I loved that man! How good, how perfect I thought him! I fancied him a model man! Even now I cannot accuse him. It was not his fault, but mine alone. His sin is my crime. Oh, what folly! Let us speak of the situation seriously. You know now, I suppose, why I wanted to see you. I wished to ask your advice.”
I sat down beside her.
Bessy dried her eyes, and then began to speak quite soberly.
“The whole world judges me wrongly. They fancy I am full of levity. But if anything pains me, the pain lasts a long, long time. Since he went away I have been nowhere, and seen nobody. If any of my old acquaintances came to see me, I told them that the whole place was topsy-turvy, and there was not even a chair to sit down upon. My servant had orders to say to every one who called —with one exception— that I was not visible. Who was this exception? Yourself! She could easily guess whom I meant, and if she didn’t guess it, it didn’t much matter. When he had to go away so suddenly, he was in a very tender mood. He wanted to make me swear that I would not be faithless while he was away. He even brought me a crucifix for the purpose, and when he saw that I laughed at him, he besought me, if I really must deceive him, at least not to bestow my favours upon the first ragamuffin that turned up; nay, he even took the trouble to indicate a worthy man to me, of whom he could not be jealous; whereupon I told him, very seriously, that the man he meant was capable of killing anybody who stood in the way of his love, but was altogether incapable of filching love from anybody else!”
(At this my face grew very red indeed.)
“Then he suddenly assumed a mystic mood, he knew my weak side. He said: ‘If you deceive me for the sake of any other man, at that same moment I shall die. Day and night I stand where death is meted out every instant, and the moment a kiss from your lips touches the lips of another man, at that self-same moment, I say, the bullet which is lying in wait for me will fly straight to my heart!’ A horrible saying! It would not let me sleep, and rose up before me in my dreams. When one or other of my lady friends came to visit me and we fell a-chatting and began to laugh and joke, a sort of cold shiver would suddenly run all down my body. While I am smiling, I thought, perhaps he is dying a death of torments beneath the horses’ hoofs. Every savoury morsel sticks in my throat when I think — perhaps he is now suffering hunger and thirst; and when the blast shakes my windows, I think — now he is standing defenceless amidst the tempest and freezing. And I unable to protect him!
“In short, this threat of his made me quite a somnambulist. At last I denied myself even to my lady friends. I became quite morbid. I fancied I had no right to be gay. Ten times a day I went to the crucifix by which he had wished me to swear and knelt down before it to pray. I made all sorts of vows provided he were preserved and brought back safely to me. And yet I am a Calvinist! But that crucifix was his. He remained faithful to it through all his change of faith. In fact, I was in a fair way of becoming a Pietist. I began to think a life of virtue very beautiful. I should very much have liked to see you now and again, if only to show you that I could be just as moral as you. I would have praised your wife to you, and you would have returned the compliment by praising my husband. This would have been my ambition.”
It was the cook who interrupted this burst of feeling.
“Shall I bring in the stew, madame?”
“Yes, bring it in, if it is ready.”
Then she turned to me to explain the circumstances of the case.
“I have to let these ladies have their food cooked separately, for Magyar dishes would make them mortally ill. That is why I don’t lay the table for three. Your favourite dishes would be death to these Germans.”
The cook now brought in the stewed chicken.
Bessy tasted it first with a little spoon to see if it were salted enough, and also to see whether the cook had put parsley in it by mistake, for the doctor who was attending the little girl had forbidden every sort of seasoning ingredients in her food. Then she herself sliced up a roll of the best white bread for the little girl, poured some water for her into a glass, and warmed it a little by holding it tightly for a while between the palms of her hands instead of popping a live coal into it, as thoughtful mothers often do for their sick children. For the mother of the child, however, she had a bottle of Pilsener beer uncorked, and sent to her.
Only when they had dined was our dinner served.
Meanwhile, we did not resume our interrupted conversation; the servant was constantly passing in and out, and we could not speak before her. Then, after that, when we sat down to dinner (and a bitter meal it was to me) the thread of our conversation was broken as often as the cook came in with a new dish or to change a plate, and all that time she played the part of the amiable hostess, inviting me to fall to in good old Hungarian style.
“One morning,” she said, “while I was doing my hair, my servant came and told me that a shabby-looking woman was outside, with a biggish girl, making inquiries about the lieutenant. I went out to them into the kitchen. I saw before me a blonde, blue-eyed woman, of about the same age as myself, and clinging to her arm was a lanky slip of a growing girl about ten or eleven years of age. In the woman’s hand was a travelling-bag and an umbrella. She was in bourgeois costume, without the fashionable crinoline, and on her head was a simple felt cap; her girl was dressed in just the same way. They both wore their hair quite smooth and combed back from the forehead.
“The woman wished me good-day in German.
“I asked her what she wanted.
“The woman replied that she wanted her husband, Mr. Wenceslaus Kvatopil.
“‘When he left me he was only a lieutenant.’
“I quickly caught her by the hand and led her out of the kitchen into the saloon. My servant, fortunately, did not understand German.
“I led them right into my bedroom. I invited them both to be seated.
“‘Ah, that will do us good,’ said the woman, ‘for we have come a long way. We have come here from Cracow.’
“‘Surely not on foot?’
“‘On foot all the way. We couldn’t afford to come by rail.’
“Just fancy! The very thought is terrible! To come on foot all those hundred miles hither from Cracow with a growing girl! Can one’s imagination realize such a thing?
“‘Are you the wife of Lieutenant Wenceslaus Kvatopil?’ I inquired of the woman.
“‘I am, and this is his daughter, Marianna.’
“And by way of proving her assertion she drew from her travelling-bag her marriage lines, extracted from the registers of the cathedral of Cracow, to wit:—‘Bridegroom: Wenceslaus Kvatopil, Sub–Lieutenant in the *** Dragoons. Bride: Anna Dunkircher. Witnesses: Babolescky, Colonel, and Kolmarscky, shopkeeper. Officiating clergyman: Stanislaus Lubousky. Dated, Feb. 16th, 1846.’
“Then she showed me the baptismal certificate of the daughter. ‘Marianna, born in lawful wedlock, June 19th, 1846. Father: Sub–Lieutenant Wenceslaus Kvatopil. Mother: Anna Dunkircher. Officiating clergyman: Stanislaus Lubousky. Godparents: the above-mentioned marriage-witnesses.’
“A marriage contract, duly attested, was also among the documents.”
All at once Bessy burst out laughing.
The cook came in and brought the soup.
“Ha! ha! ha! Do you know why, according to Ollendorf, the Captain weeps?”
“Because the Englishman has no bread.”
“Look, Susy, you’ve forgotten to give my guardian some bread! Give him a crusty bit, he likes that!”
The servant apologised, but said that she didn’t think the soup required bread.
It was excellent soup, made of cream and eggs and rice and finely-chopped chicken. Bessy filled my plate with it.
“Thank you, that will be enough.”
When the servant went out we resumed our conversation. And here, I may remark, by the way, that there is no more pleasant tête-à-tête in the world than that which is interrupted every ten minutes or so by the incursions of the servants.
“Now we know,” said I, “what was the cause of the extraordinary phenomenon of a happy bridegroom beginning to sob bitterly immediately after his marriage. It was his deserted wife and child that the poor fellow was thinking about.”
“True, but don’t let your soup cool on that account. Would you like a little Parmesan with it?”
“Thank you, but I like it much better without.”
“Wenceslaus Kvatopil liked his with Parmesan.”
Then we settled down to our soup.
“Wenceslaus Kvatopil always had a second serving of rice soup.”
“Thank you, but I never take a second serving of any dish.”
“I know that, and I also know that it is your habit to leave the best bit at the side of your plate.”
“How did you come to know that?”
“I first observed it when I was a little girl and you sometimes came to dine with us. They say that it is a species of superstition; the tit-bit placed at the side of the plate signifies that our distant true love is suffering from hunger.”
“It is no superstition, but a simple rule of health to leave off eating and drinking while your appetite is still at its best.”
Thus we continued our dietetic discussions as if we had no other desire in the world than to live a ripe old age and be free from gout.
I have already mentioned that there was chopped-up chicken in the soup, and that portion of the chicken fell to Bessy’s lot which is known as the spur-bone.
Now, it is a well-known custom among young unmarried ladies in confidential conclave, when one of them gets such a spur-bone, for her to invite her fair colleague to crack the bone with her. One of them then takes one end of the spur-bone and the other takes the other end, and they pull away in different directions till the bone comes in two. Whichever of them gets the spur portion will be married soonest. That is a fantastic sort of superstition, if you like.
Bessy laughed and said:
“When we ate our first dinner together, a spur-bone of this sort fell into my hands. I stretched it out towards Anna. ‘Pull,’ I said, ‘and see which of us is to have Kvatopil.’”
“Then you got to be good friends pretty quickly?”
“Why shouldn’t we? Hadn’t we both the same husband? I naturally kept them here with me. I don’t know what would have become of them if I hadn’t taken them in. At this moment they haven’t got a farthing. They travelled the whole distance on coffee only. They had no other upper garments but what they were actually wearing on their bodies. . . . My first duty was to get them properly dressed. My clothes fitted the woman very well, and I bought some for the child in Kerepesi Street. But the little one had to take to her bed immediately, for she had a bad headache and was very feverish. I sent for a doctor, and he gave her some medicine which sent her to sleep. She and her mother have slept in my bed ever since, and I sleep on the sofa. — Won’t you have a little liver?”
“No, thank you. Pray, go on!”
“When the poor lady saw that I received her kindly, her heart melted; she fell upon my neck, and our tears flowed like spring showers. We knew that one of us would be the death of the other, but which was to be the victim? Then we quickly told each other our experiences of our common husband, and how we first met him. I could make a strange dramatic scene out of it.
“I inquired: ‘Come now, Anna, tell me, how did you first meet with Kvatopil, and how could you remain absent from him for thirteen years?’ Anna replied: ‘It is a strange story. Do you happen to know, Bessy, the history of the Cracow Republic?’
“I: ‘No, dear, I never heard of the poor thing.’
“Anna: ‘Then you must know that it is a large Polish town where the Polish kings were formerly crowned and buried when they died. I am a native of that city. My father was a famous glove-maker in Cracow, whose goods were sold far and wide. Our town was the last free Polish Republic when Poland was finally partitioned. Its territory consisted of twenty-two square miles.’”
(“Less than Debreczin,” I interrupted.)
Bessy went on with Anna’s narrative:—
“‘When I was a little girl ten years of age a fresh Polish insurrection broke out. The united forces of the Austrians, Russians, and Prussians again put it down, and the care of the Cracow Republic was entrusted to Austria. The old Polish customs and assemblies remained in force, but Austrian soldiers garrisoned the citadel continually. When I was sixteen years old my mother died, and I had to take her place behind the counter. Here I made the acquaintance of Kvatopil. He was a young sub-lieutenant, and he generally came to our shop to buy his gloves. Would that he had stopped short at gloves! Can any one justly give a bad name to a young girl because she is confiding? I believed in him! And he really had such a good heart. When he saw that I had only to choose between shame and death, he went to my father and begged for my hand. Naturally they gave us to each other. It was never the custom among the Poles when a girl married a soldier for her to go and ask permission first of all from the military authorities, and deposit a terribly big sum by way of caution-money; the priest simply united us without any questionings. We had not been man and wife a week when the Revolution again broke out. Cracow was the centre of the Polish rising. At first the Polish rebels fought with great success. I saw the Polish scythemen drive my husband’s cavalry regiment from one end of the street to the other. My husband had not even time to say good-bye to me.’
“‘Then you are a Pole?’ said I.
“‘Why shouldn’t I be?’ replied Anna. ‘Surely I may be a Pole though I have a German name? Dark days followed. My little girl was born. Twice a day I felt bound to go to church — the first time to pray that my country might triumph, and the second time to pray that my husband might return to me. A mad idea, wasn’t it? Surely it is impossible for Deity even to grant two diametrically opposite prayers at the same time? My husband returned indeed to Cracow, but the Polish cause was crushed. The champions of freedom fled in all directions, and the garrison troops returned. It was a sad meeting. After that catastrophe Cracow ceased to be a republic, and was incorporated with the Austrian hereditary possessions as a simple city. My father wept, but I rejoiced because I had got my husband back. But very soon I was punished for my criminal joy. My husband informed me that things were going badly with us. Hitherto the Austrian officers in Cracow had not been wont to ask the permission of their general to marry. Now, however, when Cracow had been joined to Austria, the military regulations of the rest of the empire had been extended to us, and a lieutenant’s wife had to pay down caution-money to the amount of 7,000 florins. My father was incapable of raising such a sum. He had another daughter besides me, and could not withdraw so large a sum from his business. Danger threatened us if my husband’s superiors discovered his marriage, for in such a case Kvatopil would have been degraded to the ranks. My father suggested that Kvatopil should quit the profession of arms and settle down to some sort of profession. But it was an impossible idea. Who would give employment in Cracow to an Austrian officer who had taken up arms against the Poles?
“‘Just about this time, too, Kvatopil was promoted to the rank of senior lieutenant. This at once inflamed our hearts with the joyous hope that he would rapidly scale the ladder of promotion, and we knew that if once he became a major he would not have to deposit his matrimonial caution-money, and we might then fearlessly publish the fact that we were man and wife. Nobody knew of it hitherto except our friends and relations.
“‘So we agreed to keep it quiet, and immediately afterwards Kvatopil and his regiment were transferred to Hungary.
“‘Since the revolution broke out in Hungary I have heard nothing more of Kvatopil. I know not where he is, or what has become of him, or whether he is alive or dead: no tidings of him whatever. In times of war they make a mystery of the whereabouts of this or that regiment.
“‘Once we read from a bulletin that my husband’s regiment had taken part in a battle in the Banat. My poor father then resolved to go personally to the Banat and inquire of the colonel whether my husband was still alive. Just as he got there, they were burying the colonel with great pomp. He had died of typhus fever. He had been the witness of our marriage, and was the only one of the officers who knew anything about it. He had kept his secret well, for his officiating as a witness at an irregular ceremony might have cost him his place also. All that the lieutenant-colonel could tell us of Kvatopil was, that his company had been detached on some expedition, and had not come back. Possibly the Hungarian insurgents had eaten them all up.
“‘I could thus very well put on and wear mourning, and till the end of the war I heard not a word about my husband.’
“So far spoke Anna; but now I began to speak.
“‘You didn’t hear of him, because all through the campaign he was closely invested in the besieged Temesvar with his company, and no news could come out of that place till the end of the year.’
“‘But why couldn’t he let me hear from him when Temesvar was free again? He could at least have written that he was still alive?’
“‘The cause of that is easy to find. So far as he was concerned, the whole campaign was sterile of glory. As a cavalry officer he was unable to be of any service to the besieged city. At the end of the campaign he still remained a senior lieutenant, whilst all the others had reached the rank of captain. Bitter disappointment was all that remained to him. An officer who is passed over is worse off than if he were dead. He cannot even say, “Thank God, I am still alive!”’
“‘But subsequently? In all these latter years? Why didn’t he write to me all these three or four years, if but a line to say that he was still alive and thinking of me, and of the child whom he loved so much?’
“‘I can tell you the reason of that also,’ I said. ‘To save a frivolous comrade, he got into debt, and fell into the hands of unmerciful usurers, who immediately dragged him deeper into the mire. An officer in such a vexatious position is certainly not very much inclined to fetter himself with a wife and child as well. It is now not only the want of the caution-money which separates him from you, but also that nasty bog called Debt. This bog he cannot wade through. If under such circumstances he thinks of his wife and child, that only increases his despair. If he wrote you a letter at all, it would only contain these lines: “By the time you read these lines I shall have ceased to exist.”’
“Anna was curious to know how far into debt Kvatopil had actually got. I immediately mentioned the neat little sum it amounted to.
“You should have seen what a long face my friend pulled.
“She asked me in consternation whether this immense load of debt still remained upon him.
“The situation was so droll that, despite all its bitterness, I couldn’t help laughing. I could read from the poor simple creature’s face that if I were to say to her, ‘My dear, sweet friend, debt is the one thing in this earth which the tooth of time never nibbles, Kvatopil’s bills still live’ (this was quite true, but they were living in my strong box), she would have been capable, poor, unhappy lady! of taking her little girl by the hand and walking all the way back to Cracow. But I was sorry for the poor thing. I told her the pure naked truth. Four years long her husband had told her nothing of his goings on because of his creditors, but after that time because of me. I made his acquaintance; I did not know that he was married; I fell in love with him, and — offered him my hand. I was bound to acknowledge that he had hesitated to accept it. He made all sorts of excuses except the unexceptionable one that he had a wife already. But as he was already up to his eyes in hot water he had had no choice but to blow his brains out or commit bigamy. Apparently he had regarded the latter alternative as the less unpleasant one.
“Anna herself admitted that it was very much wiser of Kvatopil to have chosen the latter course. What a good, affectionate creature the woman was!
“I then satisfied her that I had paid off all worthy Kvatopil’s debts before his marriage. I even showed her the bills preserved in my strong box, explaining to her besides that they had now expired, but that I did not mean to proceed against Kvatopil for the amount in spite of our altered relations. At this the good soul fell down at my feet, shedding tears of gratitude. She even kissed my knees, and assured me that she would bless my memory to the very day of her death. Ever since this comforting reassurance on my part, her tender inclination for the beloved Kvatopil was perfectly reestablished.
“I put the finishing touch to my kind-heartedness by describing to her the scene when Kvatopil, as bridegroom, fell to weeping bitterly after the wedding; there could be no doubt that those bitter tears were shed on account of his forsaken wife and daughter.
“This quite overcame poor Anna. ‘Look now, what a good heart poor Kvatopil has!’ said she.
“Then we began quoting to each other the various noble traits that we had mutually discovered in Kvatopil’s character. . . . ”
—“Well, did you find the pig’s ears with beans to your liking, sir?” inquired the cook of me at that moment, as she came in to change the dishes.
“On my word of honour as a poet, I have never tasted such pig’s ears and beans,” I replied.
An apricot pasty followed, of which — I confess it freely — I am also fond.
Bessy then continued her story:—
“I went to my lawyer, put my case before him, and asked him what he advised me to do in my situation. I applied to him first (a dry, prosaic man, with his mental vision bounded by the law); after that, I wanted to lay the matter before you, that you might judge between us.”
“Between me and my lawyer, for we are of diametrically opposite views as to what I ought to do next.”
“Then you have a view on the subject, too?”
“Of course I have; but listen first to the view of the man learned in the law, and before you do that, let us drink to the health of those we love, and those who love us.”
We drank the toast accordingly, but we mentioned no names.
“And now listen to the opinion of the lawyer:—
“‘It is a great misfortune, certainly,’ he said, ‘but the only person to suffer will be Anna Dunkircher. If we lived in ordinary peaceful times, the business might be settled by the military authorities compelling Lieutenant Wenceslaus Kvatopil to renounce his rank by marrying contrary to the regulations. In that case the marriage contracted with Anna Dunkircher would remain valid. On the other hand, according to the tenor of the Austrian criminal law, Mr. Kvatopil would then have the pleasant prospect of two years’ imprisonment for the subsequently committed crime of bigamy. Nevertheless, under our present circumstances, when the army of Lombardy has great need of every valiant and experienced officer, the Cracow wife would, undoubtedly, get this answer for her trouble: “Your marriage has been contracted illegally, and is consequently null and void.” The parson who joined them would be sent for a twelvemonth to a monastery, by way of penitential discipline; but Wenceslaus Kvatopil would remain a lieutenant, or even, if he distinguished himself, become a captain. You, consequently, will be Mrs. Lieutenant, and perhaps Mrs. Captain, for the annulling of the former marriage will restore to you all your rights.’
“Those were the lawyer’s words. I laid them to heart. Now, do you know anything of martial law?”
“I frankly confess that martial law occupies a most prominent place among those sciences which I do not know.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what I replied to him. ‘Good!’ I said, ‘the laws, the circumstances, the position of things, everything, in fact, proves and proves to demonstration that Anna Dunkircher has forfeited all her marital rights; but has not the law of the human heart also its validity? Do I express myself in proper legal phraseology?’”
At this I couldn’t help laughing, but she proceeded with her story.
“My lawyer was very far indeed from laughing. ‘What!’ said he, ‘do you imagine that Wenceslaus Kvatopil’s heart still beats for his first wife whom he deserted — to whom he did not write of set purpose, not even when he could, lest he might thus have supplied some written testimony to the fact of her really having been Wenceslaus Kvatopil’s lawful spouse, and not merely some betrayed girl with whom he had, at some time or other, unlawfully cohabited? Do you fancy that Wenceslaus Kvatopil, thirteen years after the event, is still so romantic as to ask for his dismissal from the service in the middle of a campaign, on the very field of battle, and desert the standard of his Sovereign, whom he has sworn to obey, simply to enable Anna Dunkircher to save her matronly dignity? Do you fancy that Wenceslaus Kvatopil will throw up his career at the very moment when it is full of the most brilliant hopes for him, and allow himself to be shut up as a felon for a couple of years, at the end of which time he will be discharged a branded beggar, simply to live for the rest of his life as the lawful husband of a beggar woman even more beggarly than himself? And finally, do you imagine that Wenceslaus Kvatopil has so completely lost the use of his five senses as to be capable of spurning away from him, and exposing to the contempt of the whole world, a young and lovely consort like yourself, a rich and noble lady who can keep him in comfort for the rest of his days — and all for what? for the sake of taking back a faded, withered woman, whose face is wrinkled with care, who is the daughter of an honest glover, to whom it would be no advantage to stick the name of Kvatopil on his sign-board instead of the time-honoured firm of Dunkircher? No, madam. That he is such a good-hearted man as all that I do not for one moment believe. I would as soon believe in sea-maidens with finny tails — upon my word I would.’
“I did not interrupt my lawyer. I allowed him to have his say out. But when he made a brief pause, I said to him: ‘I am not speaking of Kvatopil’s heart, but of my own.’
“‘Your own?’ cried he, in amazement. ‘What has your heart got to do with it?’
“‘I have my own notion of settling this painful business,’ I said. ‘I propose to transfer to Anna Dunkircher the surety-money which I deposited on the occasion of our marriage, and then she will have satisfied the conditions imposed on officers who marry — and may she and her husband be happy. I can easily disappear somewhere in the crowd. The world is large.’
“At this the lawyer flew into a passion. ‘If you do that,’ he cried, ‘you are only fit to be locked up in a lunatic asylum at Döbling.’
“Nevertheless,” concluded Bessy, “it is my serious and fixed resolve to do so.”
I could not help laying my hand on hers. What true, what noble sentiments were slumbering in that heart! If only she had had some one to awaken them! What an excellent lady might have been made out of this woman, if she had only met with a husband who, in the most ordinary acceptance of the word, had been a good fellow, as is really the case with about nine men out of every ten. Why should she have always managed to draw the unlucky tenth out of the urn of destiny?
She guessed my thoughts during that moment of silence. Those large, deep fiery eyes slowly filled with tears. The fire of a diamond is nothing to be compared with the fiery sparkle of those tears. How lovely she was at that moment!
Her lips began to quiver, and she could scarcely pronounce the words:
“That other woman had a child.”
And at this she began to sob convulsively, covering her face with one hand, and squeezing my hand violently with the other.
My heart was so touched that, a very little more, and I should have mingled my tears with hers.
When she had wept out her bitter mood, she sighed deeply, and dried her tears.
“Now you know why I asked you to come here,” said she. “Be you the judge in this matter. Which is right, the reason or the heart? Am I to do what my lawyer advises, or what my own feelings suggest?”
It was a difficult matter.
“Let us see,” I said, “can’t we hit upon some middle course? I advise you neither to do what your lawyer advises nor what you yourself propose. Wait a bit. The great war is still going on, more than a million of warriors are standing face to face. Not a fifth part of that number will return to their homes when the war is over. In this war your Kvatopil will either fall or remain alive. If he falls, you can both go into mourning. You need not quarrel about the widow’s veil. If, however, Kvatopil survives the end of the war, a brave and ambitious officer like him will undoubtedly have mounted higher on the ladder of promotion — the battle-field is the forcing house of advancement! He will have become a major, and as major he will not be required to deposit109 any matrimonial caution-money. He can then take his Anna Dunkircher, and you will have no need to surrender your guarantee money, which you want very much yourself.”
109 I say this of past times. — M. J.]
“I thank you,” said the lady. “’Tis every bit as simple as the egg of Columbus. Then we’ll wait, Anna and I, till the war is over, and till then we’ll make one family.”
“Let me call your attention to one thing, however. For the present it would be well if you were to hide yourself somewhere, in some little town, for instance, where nobody knows you. Here, in this capital, you will quickly find yourself in an awkward and untenable position. The story of the first wife will very quickly be known by all the world. The title of straw-widow would do pretty well perhaps, but the title of straw-wife won’t do at all. Pack up your traps, I say, go straight off to the country tomorrow, and take your guests along with you.”
“I’ll do so.”
We had scarcely finished speaking when the doctor knocked at the door. When there’s sickness in the house one cannot deny oneself to the doctor. The doctor, too, was an old acquaintance of mine. He had a very extensive practice, and he was a homoeopathist. I could take it as absolutely certain that when he went his rounds among his patients on the morrow, he would let them have, in addition to their nux vomica, or whatever else it might be, the very latest bit of scandal — to wit, that he had found me closeted with the pretty lady, and both of us in our cups — tea-cups of course.
I waited till he came back from his little patient. He satisfied us that there was now no danger, and she might leave her bed.
Bessy asked whether the girl might be taken into the country.
“Yes, it will do her good.”
The doctor and I left at the same time.
I had no sooner got out of the door than I again stumbled upon Tóni Sági.
“Corpo di Bacco! And you have been sitting all this time with that pretty young lady?”
“And you have been walking all the time in front of the door, eh?”
The window of the house opposite was full of inquisitive female faces. I rushed into a coach and had myself driven to the railway station. The same evening I was at Szeged. There I remained for three days, and stayed with my wife till her provincial engagement was over. On every one of these three days one or two anonymous letters reached my wife from Buda–Pest of the following import: “My poor dear friend — Your husband passes whole nights and days with his former lady-love, the lieutenant’s wife. Our hearts bleed for you. The whole town knows all about it.”
How we did laugh at these letters! But what if I had not traversed the intentions of our dear friends?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56