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

Chapter ii

My First Distinction — My First Grievance — The Damenwalzer — The Frightful Monster — The Readjusted Scarf — The Second Needle-prick

I am really most grateful to Monsieur Galifard. I have to thank him for the first distinction I ever enjoyed in my life. This was the never-to-beforgotten circumstance that when my colleagues, the young hopefuls of the Academy of Jurisprudence at Kecskemet, gave a lawyers’ ball, they unanimously chose me to be the elötánczos.6 To this day I am proud of that distinction; what must I have been then? On the heels of this honour speedily came a second. The very same year, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, on the occasion of the competition for the Teleki prize, honourably mentioned my tragedy, “The Jew Boy,” and there were even two competent judges, Vörösmarty and Bajza,7 who considered it worthy of the prize. . . . When, therefore, I returned to my native town, after an absence of three years, I found that a certain renommée had preceded me. I had also very good reasons for returning home. The legal curriculum in my time embraced four years. The third year was given to the patveria, the fourth year to the jurateria.8 Every respectable man goes through the patveria in his own country, but the jurateria at Buda–Pest.

6 The dancer who leads off the ball.]

7 Two of the most eminent Hungarian poets.]

8 Different branches of Hungarian law.]

And I had something else to boast of, too. In my leisure hours I painted portraits, miniatures in oil. So well did I hit off the Judge of Osziny (and he did not give me a sitting either) that every one recognised him; but a still greater sensation was caused by my portrait of the wife of the Procurator Fiscal, who passed for one of the prettiest women in the town.

And yet, despite all this, when in the following Shrovetide the Lord Lieutenant gave a ball to the county (they were something like Lord Lieutenants in those days), I was not called upon to open the ball! Ungrateful fatherland!

And who was it, pray, who caused me this bitter slight? A dandy, who did not belong to our town at all; a certain Muki Bagotay, of whom the world only knew that he had been to Paris, and was a good match. In my rage I had resolved not to dance at the Lord Lieutenant’s ball, although I had received an invitation. Moreover, my indignation was increased by the circumstance that rumour had already designated Bessy as the semi-official partner of the opener of the ball.

However, Nemesis overtook the pair of them.

At this ball Bessy wore a frisure à l’Anglaise, which did not suit her face at all; and I rejoiced beforehand at the misadventure I clearly foresaw, for I was certain that her flying dishevelled hair would catch in the buttons of her partner’s dress-coat.

As for Muki Bagotay himself, the first time we cast eyes upon him, my young brother and I immediately agreed that it was an absolute impertinence to be so handsome. Only a romance-writer has the right to produce such perfect figures; they have no business to exist in reality. I comforted myself with the reflection that such a handsome fellow must be a blockhead. I didn’t know then that dulness was fashionable. Why, even gold has a dull ring!

But I was a very inexperienced youngster in those days. I had no down on my face, I did not know how to smoke, I would not have drunk wine for worlds, and had never even looked a lady in the face.

But, as I said before, Nemesis overtook them.

The dance opened with a waltz. If I had been master of the ceremonies, I should have started with a körmagyar.9 Ah! that körmagyar. That is something like a dance. It requires enthusiasm to dance that, and you want eight or sixteen couples to dance it properly, and all thirty-two dancers must dance it with histrionic precision, and that was not an easy thing to do, I can tell you. But, then, Bagotay was all for waltzes. The “Pecsovics”!10

9 An old Hungarian round dance.]

10 One who preferred foreign and especially Austrian customs to Hungarian.]

But there’s a Nemesis!

It was the regular custom then for the band to play ten or twelve bars of each dance before it began, and then stop for a few moments so that the public might know whether the next dance was to be a polka, quadrille, or waltz. Muki Bagotay did not know this (what did he know, forsooth?), so when the band gave the usual signal, he took his partner on his arm and started off with her in a fine whirl, till the band suddenly stopped, and they found themselves high and dry at the other end of the room with no music for their feet to dance to; so they had to sneak back shamefacedly to the place from whence they had started. Bessy was furious, and Muki was full of excuses; you would have taken them for a married couple of six months’ standing. Serve them right!

I did not watch them dance any more, but sat down in a corner and sketched caricatures on the back of my invitation card. Then I made my way to the buffet to drink almond-tea, and gathered round me two or three blasé young men, like myself weary of existence. Let the gay company inside there try and amuse themselves without our assistance if they could!

Suddenly some one tapped me on the shoulder with a fan, then I recognised a voice; it was Bessy. “What,” she said, “not content with flying from the dancing-room yourself, must you keep away other dancers also! Come back, sir! A Damenwalzer is beginning.”

For the privilege of a Damenwalzer I capitulated unconditionally of course. Having completed the turn round the room with my partner, I led Bessy back to her mother, and thanked her for the never-to-beforgotten distinction. She had to be off again almost immediately, for the voice of the master of the ceremonies announced a cotillon. The couples flew round with the velocity of will-o’-the-wisp. But her mother remained where she was, and there was an empty chair beside her.

“You are quite forgetting your old acquaintances,” said she, breathing heavily (she was stout and suffered from asthma). “You don’t trouble your head about us now you have become a famous man.”

A famous man! What! then does she also know that the Academy of Sciences honourably mentioned my tragedy? No, no! My other fame it was that had reached her — my pictorial successes.

“We have seen the lovely portrait that you painted. Yes, it was Madame Müller to the life — just as she looked fifteen years ago. Why did you not rather paint her daughter, she is much prettier? But you don’t like painting girls, do you — you are afraid it is a losing game, eh?”

The lady had certainly very peculiar expressions.

Of course I could only reply that I was not a bit afraid, and that if they would let me, I should have the greatest pleasure in painting Miss Bessy.

She was gracious enough to give her consent. The only thing was to fix when it should be. It could not be at once, as for some days after a ball young ladies do not look their best. Then they had to get ready for another dancing party, or were busy, and on Sundays they went to church. At last, however, after much calculation, a day was hunted up on which Bessy was free to sit to me.

Then there was another question for consideration: was the portrait to be painted on ivory with water-colours, or on linen with oils? “Ivory is better,” I insinuated, “because one can always wipe off a portrait in water-colours with a wet sponge whenever one likes.”

The lady remarked the self-reproach, and was gracious enough to neutralize it by a contradiction.

“Then I declare for oils, for we wish to keep the picture for ever.”

I felt that I could have done anything for her.

Meanwhile the cotillon had come to an end. Bessy returned to her mother, and the companion also resumed her place. The chair which I had appropriated belonged to her, and resigning it to its lawful possessor, I would have withdrawn, but the lady considered it her duty to present me to the ruling planet of the day, Muki Bagotay, who was escorting back his partner. She immediately acquainted him with my artistic qualifications, and made it generally known that I was going in a few days to paint her daughter’s portrait.

On the afternoon of the day appointed I appeared at Bessy’s house. I had sent on beforehand my easel and my canvas by our servant. I found not a single soul of a lackey either in the passage or the ante-chamber. I was obliged to stand there and wait till some one came to announce me, and in the meantime I could not help overhearing the conversation in the adjoining room.

“You are a good-for-nothing rascal yourself — a shameful, impertinent fellow!”

I recognised the voice of the mistress of the house.

In reply came a protesting shriek.

“Where is there a stick?” cried the lady.

And at the same instant a hoarse voice replied: “Madame, vous êtes une friponne!”

A pretty conversation truly. I had certainly arrived at the wrong time.

Meanwhile the door opened, and the flunkey came in rubbing one of his hands with the other; he was evidently in pain.

“Have you been beaten?” cried I, in amazement; to which he angrily replied: “No! I have been bitten.”

What, actually bitten the footman!

“Would you kindly walk in, sir; they are waiting for you.”

The moment I entered the room this enigmatical state of things was immediately plain to me. The personage to whom her ladyship was meting out these offensive epithets, and who was returning her such contemptuous replies, was a grey parrot who had just bitten the lackey in the finger and been chastised for this misdeed. The whole company was in the utmost excitement. There was a large assembly both of ladies and gentlemen; amongst the latter my eye immediately caught sight of Muki Bagotay. But the chief personage was the parrot. He was a grey-liveried, red-tailed, big-billed monster, and he stood in the middle of the tea-table in a threatening attitude. Somehow or other he had contrived to open the door of his bronze cage, and in a twinkling he stood in the midst of the tea-things on the covered table. “Oh, I only hope he won’t get on my head!” cried a somewhat elderly lady, holding on to her chignon with both hands. Nobody dared to assume the offensive. The footman who had attempted to seize the fugitive had already been laid hors de combat by the winged rebel, while the parlour-maid declared that she would not go near him if they gave her the whole house. The lady of the house meanwhile was making little dabs at the bird with a small Spanish cane, and calling it all sorts of abusive names; but the warlike pet always grasped the end of the cane with its strong beak, while he repaid with interest the injurious epithets bestowed upon him.

When I joined the company I was scarcely noticed and the lady of the house, in reply to my salutation, “I kiss your hand,” said, “You infamous scoundrel!” though she immediately added, “I did not mean you.”—“You’re one yourself,” retorted the bird.

“Come now, find a rhyme to that, Mr. Rhymster!” said Mr. Muki Bagotay. The wretch was apostrophizing me. — Rhymster, indeed!

“Don’t go near it!” cried Bessy; “he might bite your hand, and then you would not be able to paint me.”

They’d terrify me, eh? It only needed that. I instantly went straight for the bird. I would have done so had it been the double-headed Russian eagle itself. Was it divination which made me hit upon the proper word to say to such a human-voiced monster? “Give me your head!” said I. And at that word the terrible wretch bobbed down his head till he was actually standing on his curved beak, while I scratched his head with my index finger, which gratified him so much that he began to flutter his wings.

Then I hazarded a second command.

“Give me your foot!”

And then, to the general amazement, the parrot raised its formidable three-pronged foot and clasped me tightly round the index finger with its claws; then it seized my thumb with its other foot, and allowed me to lift it from the table. Nor was that all. While I held it on my hand, just as the mediæval huntsmen held their falcons, the parrot bent its head over my hand and began to distribute kisses; but finally he went through every variation of the kiss till it was a perfect scandal. The ladies laughed. “Who ever could have taught him?”

“I got the bird during the lifetime of my late lamented husband,” explained the lady of the house, with some confusion.

Finally, the conquered sphinx affectionately confided to me his name: “Little Koko! Darling Koko!” But I transferred Koko from my fist to his cage, and put him on to the swinging ring, which he seized, and began to climb upwards with his beak. He was a veritable triped! On settling comfortably in his ring, he made me a low bow, and cried with a naïve inflexion of voice —“Your humble servant!”

“Positively marvellous!” gasped the lady-mother; “you ought really to be a tamer of animals!”

“I mean to be.”

“Indeed! And what sort of beasts will you tame?”


Not one of them understood me.

“Well, Mr. Poet,” joked Muki Bagotay, “the ballad was a success; now let us see whether the picture also will be superlative.”

“How do you want to see it?”

“So!” and with that he stuck his eye-glass into the corner of his nose.

“Then you’re just mistaken!” said I, “for when I paint a portrait nobody is allowed in the room except myself and the sitter.”

The whole company was amazed. Every one fancied that it would have been a public exhibition, and so they had all congregated together to see how a person’s eye, mouth and ear came out. A large round table had been prepared for me, in order that a whole lot of them might sit around it with their hands on their elbows, and give me general directions as I went along: That eye a bit higher! that ringlet a little lower! A little more red here, and a little more white there! However, I declared plainly that I would not paint before a crowd; it was the rule in painting, I said. When portraits were being painted, nobody must be in the atelier but the painter and his model. Barabás,11 too, always made that a rule.

11 Michael Barabás, a famous Hungarian painter, born at Markosfalu in 1810.]

My resolution produced an imposing effect on the company. It’s a very nice thing when a man can do something which nobody else can! They had to agree that Bessy and I should sit alone in a little side room, which had only one window, and the lower part of even this window had to be covered by a Spanish screen so as to get a proper light. And nobody was to disturb us so long as the sitting lasted.

The first sitting did not last long. In oil painting, the image should first of all be painted under, that is to say, with dull neutral colours. In those days I had never heard of such a thing as a first coating; while it is in this stage the picture is not fit to be looked at. It is absolutely hideous, and the better the likeness, the worse it looks. I allowed nobody to look at it, not even Bessy. I locked up the first essay in my painter’s knapsack; it was a miniature. At this stage it was quite sufficient if the insetting had succeeded, with the figure in profile, but the countenance quite en face; the shadows piled up, but the background merely thrown out tentatively, and the fundamental colours of the dress just insinuated. Every one will see that this last part is the hardest of all.

The company was very much deceived in its expectations when it was informed that I had nothing to show it. Every one had expected that in an hour and a half I should have finished the eye or the mouth at any rate; they now thought to themselves that nothing at all would come of it.

“Well, but will Bessy look pretty in this dress?” asked her mother.

What could I do at such a question as this but look silly? As if I knew whether Bessy had had a pretty dress on or not! All I knew was that I had had to use for it a little “English lake,” some “Neapolitan yellow,” “Venetian white,” and just a scrinch of “burnt ochre.”

“I can tell you that it was a very tiresome amusement,” said Bessy. “The face a little more that way — Not so serious — Not so smiling — Don’t sit so stiffly — Raise your finger — Don’t move about so much. — And you’ve laid so much licorice-juice on my portrait that they’ll fancy I’m a gipsy girl.”

I hastened to assure her that this was only laying the ground work, and that on the morrow it would be a much merrier business.

The next day I was there again after an early dinner. In the forenoon I was with my chief at the office. Thus before dinner I was a lawyer, and after dinner I was artist, poet, and reciter.

This time there was no company. The picture proceeded briskly, and the members of the family were allowed to come in from time to time, one by one, and have a peep at it.

I had now begun to study the face more in detail. It was an interesting head. The face was almost heart-shaped, terminating below in a little chin which was delicately divided by a single dimple. There were spiral-like lips of dazzling red enamel; a slightly retroussé nose, with vibrating nostrils; round, rosy-red cheeks, with little beauty spots here and there, which I christened “black stars in the ruddy dawning heavens!” Her densely thick hair curled naturally, and gleamed like golden enamel, diminishing, after the manner of Phidias’ ideal Venus, the smoothest of foreheads, and fluttering the most roguish of little ringlets over the blue-veined temples. (How could I help learning by heart such minute details when every one of them passed beneath my brush?) But what my brush could not possibly reproduce was her marvellous pair of eyes. They drove me entirely to despair. I really believe that even if I had been a true artist instead of a wretched dilettante, I should never have been able to conjure forth their secrets. Just when I was thinking I had fixed them, her eyes would flash, and my whole work was thrown away. At last I had to be content with a dreamy expression, which pleased me, at any rate, best. The inspecting family trio said that they had never seen such an expression on Bessy’s face; nevertheless they acknowledged, with one voice, that it was a speaking likeness.

The head was now ready, the dress was to remain till tomorrow.

On that day there was a préférence party in town at the General’s. Bessy’s mother was an enthusiastic préférence player. . . . Consequently she was not at home. The aunt alone remained as the guardian of maidens, and she used generally to take a nap in the afternoon, or play patience. I don’t know who presided over Bessy’s toilet on this occasion, perhaps nobody. That clean-cut, pale pink bodice on other days had given full scope to her charming figure; but on this particular day it was more insinuating than ever. It seemed to me as if the frill of English tulle had crept considerably lower down the shoulder, nay, lower still.

One cannot imagine a lovelier masterpiece of a creative hand than that bust. And it is a painter’s right, nay, his duty, not merely to look, but to observe. A dangerous privilege. My hand trembled, I seemed to freeze, and yet beads of sweat stood out upon my forehead. . . . She, too, seemed to remark my agitation. A roguish flame sparkled in her eye. She was now not a bit like her yesterday’s portrait. She seemed to be flouting me. And I was putting that treacherous frill of tulle to rights in the picture, putting it where it ought to have been. That is what I really call “corriger la fortune.”

At this sitting the face was completely finished, and the dress also was painted. I thanked the fair self-sacrificing victim, and told her that she might now look at the picture; it was ready. The girl rose from her chair and peeped over my shoulder. She looked at the picture and laughed in my face.

“Why, you’ve readjusted the frill of my dress, haven’t you?” said she.

“So you wore it like that purposely, eh?”

“Then was there something you didn’t want to see?”

“There was something I didn’t want other people to see.”

“Well, now, I’ve been looking at you for days and days, and I’ve observed something on you which is very nasty, and which I don’t like at all.”

“I had no idea you gave me so much of your attention.”

“It is only a mere speck, no bigger than the eye of a bean.”

“What can it be?”

“The wart on your right hand.”

And, indeed, on my right hand, just below the thumb, was a not very ornamental excrescence, which everybody could see when I was writing or painting.

“I cannot cut it out, because it is just above the artery. I showed it to a doctor, and he said it would be a rather dangerous operation.”

“What does the doctor know about it? I’ll destroy it for you; it won’t hurt you. I learned it at school from my school-fellows. I’ll destroy it in a moment.”

“By incantations, eh?”

“Oh, dear no! It will smart dreadfully. But if a girl can stand it, you can.”

I consented.

She lit a candle forthwith, and placed it on the table beside me. Then she produced a darning-needle from somewhere (I thought of the other darning-needle), took firm hold of it, shoved it right down to the very roots of the wart, held up my hand, and placed the head of the needle in the candle flame till it was heated to a white heat. And all the time her wondrous eyes were opened round and wide, and looked straight into my eyes with irises turned downwards. It is thus that the demons of hell must look upon those whom they are roasting!

“Does it hurt?” she hissed between her teeth. She appeared to be in a state of ecstatic delight.

“It hurts, but it is not the needle.”

“Well, now you can take your wart away with you.”

Two days after, the calcined wart fell from my hand, leaving behind it a little speck no bigger than a lentil; and that speck is there still, and is of a whiteness which contrasts strongly with the colour of the rest of the hand. And every day I set to work writing, I must needs look at this little white spot, and when I have looked at it long, it seems to me as if her face were appearing before me in the midst of this tiny circle just as it looked then; and then that face runs through all its variations down to that last shape of all, which still startles me from my slumbers.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56