Well, the long and short of it is, confess I must, that I have a sweetheart for whose sake I have been unfaithful, not only to my wife, but to my muse also — a sweetheart who has immeshed me in her spider’s web, and sucked my heart’s blood dry, who has appropriated my best ideas, made me scamper after her from one end of the kingdom to the other, and whose slave I was and still am. Often have I wasted half my fortune upon her, and rushed blindly into misfortune to please her. For her have I patiently endured insult, ridicule, and reprobation. For her sake I have staked life and liberty.
Sometimes, when I have felt the pinch of her tyranny, I have tried to escape from her; but she has enticed me back again and would not let me go.
Now, if she had been some pretty young damsel, there might have been some excuse for me. But she was a nasty, old, painted figure-head of a beldame; a flirting, faithless, fickle, foul-mouthed, scandal-mongering old liar, whom the whole world courts, who makes fools of all her wooers, and changes her lover as often as she changes her dress.
Her name is Politica,114 and may the plague take her.
There was one particular year in which I was over head and ears in love with her, and did absolutely everything she wanted. On her account I fell out with a good friend of mine who was the very right hand of my newspaper. I fought (also on her account) a duel with pistols with another good friend of mine, who had no more offended me than I had ever offended him, in fact, we had always respected each other most highly. But Politica insisted upon it, and so we banged away at each other. Then she hounded me on against a third good friend of mine, who was an excellent fellow, and a Hungarian Minister of State to boot, and induced me to endeavour to thwart his election. And I actually did make this excellent fellow’s election fall through, this good friend whom I respected, loved and honoured. Politica demanded it. What a parade she made when she dragged me along after her triumphal car! She actually made me believe that I was now the most famous man in the whole kingdom! And she made me pay for her precious favours, too! What petits soupers for five hundred men at a time! What hundreds of carriages! What toilets! . . . But in those days I was quite wrapped up in her.
After my great triumph a torrent of congratulatory letters and telegrams showered down upon me. I had actually upset a Cabinet Minister! That was a triumph! Every one who, at any time, or under any circumstances, had been acquainted with me, called upon me after my brilliant success. Old school-fellows with whom I had formerly fought in the playground now recollected me. There was a brisk demand for my autograph. I was proud of it all. I was not even surprised, therefore, when one afternoon they brought into me a visiting card with the name “Mrs. Esaias Medvési” upon it.
It was very natural that she also should visit me. The sunbeams of my glory had melted the ice of her displeasure. Six years had now passed since I had seen her. I could imagine how she had filled out in the meantime. Well taken care of, with no vexations to worry her, harassed by no passions, what other fate could possibly await my fair ideal than — to grow fat?
All the more startled was I, therefore, when I did see her.
She had grown quite gaunt. Her old-fashioned dress, which had been made to fit fuller forms, hung loosely about her. Her face, once so rosy and gay, was now lean and haggard; sombre wrinkles, which met together beneath her chin, had taken the place of her roguish dimples. Only by her eyes could I recognise her: they were still the eyes of yore.
When she saw me she forced a smile, but I could see how much it cost her.
I have never thought it a proper question to ask any one whose face has altered a good deal, “Are you ill?” but she herself led up to it.
“I have greatly changed, haven’t I? ’Tis a wonder that you recognise me. I have been very ill. I have just come from the doctor. I have been suffering from a quartan ague, which our country doctors could not drive away.”
“But otherwise you are all right, I trust?”
“No, I am not. I fancy that my physical ailment is only as stubborn as it is, because my mind also is not as it should be.”
I asked her what was the matter.
“I have come on purpose to tell you. You always gave me good advice, and I never took it. It may be that I wouldn’t take it even now; but at least it would relieve my mind to tell you all about it. I have a secret desire which is destroying my whole soul: I go to sleep with it, and I wake up with it.”
“What desire can it be?”
“If you but look at my face, you can easily see that it is no sinful affection.”
“And yet it must be kept secret?”
“Yes, for I go about day and night with the thought of becoming a Catholic.”
I was so startled by this, that in my amazement I knew not what to say to her.
“It is my fixed resolution. The only thing that can give to my soul peace on earth and salvation in heaven is conversion to the Roman Catholic Church.”
“How did you come by this resolution? There is no Catholic church in the town where you reside.”
“But there is a monastery quite close to it, a sweet, quiet, pleasant place. I am wont to go there when they are not watching me. A mere accident moved me at first. Curiosity led me into the church when I heard the holy chants through the door; but now it is devotion which leads me there. Ah! how much more sublime a place it is than our bald, bare place of worship. Wherever I look I see groups of holy figures who bless and beckon me. And those sublime chants, which seem to come from the angelic chorus of heaven, and ravish my soul away to a world unknown — but oh, how ardently desired! And then the deep silence, which is scarcely broken by the solemn sanctus-bell; and then the form of the priest himself, who, like a supernatural being, speaks before the altar in a language which men may not, but God does, understand. When I come out of such a church it seems to me as if I have been speaking to God.”
I began thinking what would be the end of it all. The lady became insistent.
“What do you advise? What shall I do? My soul compels me to it.”
“My dear friend,” I replied, “you know that I am a Protestant — and as a Protestant I am liberally and indulgently inclined towards every other creed. I advise nobody to change his religion, neither do I dissuade him from so doing. I have a real veneration for the Catholic faith. I consider its ritual majestic and sublime, and its ceremonies are undoubtedly imposing and touching. Had I been born a Catholic, I should have been an ardent champion of my Church. But how can I approve of the conversion of a person in your position? Do you not reflect that your husband is an officer of the Calvinist communion?”
“But it is the very prosaic nature of this communion which offends me. For in what a dull manner do our elders and deacons perform their sacred functions! Prayer, sermon, hymns — everything is with them a mere matter of enforced routine. How can they inspire others who have not themselves the gift of grace? Such people can only mock at and speak scornfully of their neighbours’ faith because they have no real faith of their own.”
“But pray recollect that a Protestant schoolmaster loses his post if his wife changes her religion.”
“He may lose his material comforts, but I lose the repose of my soul.”
“My dear Bessy, I can imagine that a woman with extraordinarily sensitive nerves may find no consolation in Puritan simplicity. If you would seek refuge in true devotion, procure Allach’s prayer-book — the manual of Catholic prayers, you know. In that book you’ll find everything that is sublime, majestic, and heavenly in Catholic theology. Pray out of that book when you are alone and nobody sees you.”
“That is not enough for me. Religion does not consist in prayers and singing alone.”
“Then perhaps it is the pomp of the external ceremonies which has such an effect on your mind?”
“That affects me least of all. But there is in the Catholic Church an institution as sublime as it is comforting, an institution sufficient of itself to spread the Catholic religion all over the round world wherever there are hearts that bleed, wherever there are those who suffer from other than merely material aches and pains. That institution is confession. It was a gross blunder of John Calvin not to have retained that institution for the faithful. He did not know the heart, especially the female heart. There is no greater torture in this world than to carry about in one’s soul night and day an evil thought which harasses and pursues, and be unable to tell it to anybody. A Catholic woman can always find a word of consolation for her despair, a hand stretched out to raise her when she falls; she has a refuge against the accusations of her own conscience; if she has sinned, she can beg for absolution, and her soul is lightened of its load. But who can absolve me? To whom can I tell that which tortures me within?”
Her eyes were fixed and staring like the eyes of a somnambulist who sees nothing before her but a visionary world which others do not see, and at the same time she raised her index finger and laid it on her parched and cracking lips, as if to keep back the moanings of her dumb distress.
I was deeply grieved for her. She had no need to tell me what she felt; her features spoke for themselves, and said how much she must have suffered since the last change in her life.
“My dear friend,” I said at last, “you have now known me for a long time, and you know that I have always been your well-wisher. If you have any bitter thought which oppresses you, confess it to me. Amongst Protestants every man is a priest. That is our fundamental dogma. Confess to me!”
She smiled strangely; just as a sick man smiles when the doctor tries to persuade him that he really is well, while he himself is thinking all the time: “Just you wait a bit, and I’ll turn the joke against you and — die!”
“You will receive my confession, then?”
“Yes; and rest assured that I’ll keep the solemn secret as sacred as a consecrated priest.”
“As long as I am alive, at any rate. After I am dead, I don’t care what you do. You may then proclaim it to the world if you like. When I am dead, I authorize you to write a romance about me, a romance like mine you have never written yet. But till then, not a word to any one of what you will now hear from me. To nobody, not even to your wife! Promise me that! Your word of honour on it!”
“My friend, there is a crypt within my breast for buried secrets. Your secret shall repose among the rest.”
She bent down to my ear, her burning breath scorched my face, and she whispered: “I confess to you that I wish to kill my husband.”
Horrified, I looked into her eyes, they flashed up at me like the eyes of devils. That wish of hers was a real living wish.
“And what I’ve said, I’ll do”— and she pressed her lips together till they were quite thin, and her eyes distended into orbs filled with threatening fire.
“Good Heavens! what thought is this?”
She looked at me with a malicious smile.
“There, you see you are no priest, and can give no absolution.”
“Nor would a priest give you absolution either. A priest can impose penance for sin repented of, but he cannot give indulgence beforehand for a meditated crime. A priest could only say to you what I say now: ‘Fly to God and cleanse your soul from this dark thought!’ How could you ever have suffered it to enter your soul, that good and gentle soul of yours that used always to love and never to hate?”
“Yes, such I ever was, was I not? I was indeed a loving fool. You once wrote a tale which I remember reading when a child. In this tale a distracted heart relates how many ways there are of extinguishing life. Amongst other things written there is this: that if honey is allowed to stand till it rots, it turns into the deadliest venom. This is quite true as to the honey with which the heart of a poor credulous woman is full, but it is not true with regard to the honey of the field. I have tried and found that it is not true.”
“Believe me, neither case is true. In married life there is no such sea of bitterness as cannot be made sweet again by a single drop of love.”
“Alas! what I suffer exceeds even the power of your imagination. Contempt, degradation, is my daily bread. Insult follows upon every step I take. When I speak, my words are misinterpreted; when I am silent, I am chided; when I weep, I am bullied and brow-beaten.”
“Do you think that perhaps your husband suspects your intention of changing your faith?”
“So much he knows, that I frequently visit the monastery, and often have talks with one of the monks. I solemnly swear that I’ve talked to him about nothing but religion and holy things. He, however, accuses me of the nastiest things. Then when we sit together at table, he poisons every dish I eat by singing the most derisive songs he can think of about those women who rave about cowls and cassocks; in fact, he is always singing such songs in my presence.”
“But, my dear friend, you take these things too tragically. These derisive songs have been sung time out of mind. Your husband has not invented them for your special aggravation. Laugh at him to his face, and he’ll hold his tongue.”
“Very well, then. Let what he does to ridicule me be forgiven. But ever since he has begun to suspect my spiritual condition, he leaves no stone unturned to disturb my devotions. If in the afternoon or evening, when the chiming of the cloister bell is wafted over to us, I involuntarily join my hands together, he laughs at me: ‘Ha! ha! ha! they are ringing the bells to call you to prayer, are they?’ Now, the Calvinists do not ring for evening prayers, neither do they sound the Angelus, and this is a great grief to me. It is like rolling my bread in the mud and then making me eat it. This continual ridiculing clings to me like tar; it chokes, it nauseates. I feel just as if I were swimming in a sea of glue. He relates to me the most villainous anecdotes about the holy images. Last Saturday it rained the whole morning, and I could not go to town. He saw my impatience, and said to me derisively, ‘Never mind, thou female, it will clear up this afternoon, for the Virgin Mary wants to dry her son’s little shirt for Sunday!’ It was well for him that he left the room that instant, for I was very near driving my knife into his heart!”
I tried to quiet the excited creature by saying that though this was no very reverent jest, yet it was not an invention of Esaias’s. This jest about the breaking out of the sunshine on Saturday afternoon was a common saying among the Hungarian country folk, and, taken seriously, had really nothing impious about it, representing, indeed, that sacred figure, whom all of us are bound to reverence, as a provident mother from the homely, rustic point of view.
“I don’t like to hear that name on his lips. Why, I sent away an old servant of mine called Marcsa for no other reason than because her master was always calling her Maria, and every such time it was as if a dagger were piercing my heart.”
I saw that the woman was really suffering. It was a case where a heroic remedy was required.
“My dear friend,” I said, “I cannot blame your husband. Your religious extravagance, which has been not a little stimulated by the irritability of your nerves and the nostrums which the provincial doctors have made you drink, is a question of ‘to be or not to be’ for your husband. If you cling to the saints, poor Esaias will feel the earth giving way beneath him. You are bound to one another, remember. If you go and seek heaven in another church, you will only install hell in your own house. Believe me, if your husband discovers your design, he will fly into a fury and tear you to pieces. If I were you I should go to some medicinal watering place and get your nerves braced up a bit.”
“I see — I see. You do not understand what is the matter with me. You think it is a mere feminine ailment, which is, generally, half affectation. Look at that recipe. The most famous doctor in the capital prescribed it for me. I went to him, he diagnosed me. He said that the country doctors had not treated my case properly. They had stuffed me full of quinine, he said, and it was not the medicament that I wanted. So he prescribed me another. Read it!”
I looked at the prescription and saw it was arsenic.
“The doctor prescribed six drops for the first day, and a drop more every other day up to twenty drops, and then back by single drops to six again. Then my fever will return no more. But he cautioned me to keep most strictly to his prescription, as the remedy was a very dangerous one. Is that so?”
“I have had it made up in the Józsefváros dispensary.” And with that she drew out the flask from her pocket and showed it me.
“That will do for me. I will now go with this prescription to all the ten apothecaries in the town and have it made up by every one of them. Ten times the strength will certainly do for him.”
Horrified, I seized her hand.
“Miserable woman, what wouldst thou do? Surely not commit murder? Wouldst thou poison thy husband’s body and my soul? Every time I have thought of thee I have seen thee before me in the idealized form of my pure love of early days, and wilt thou now put horror and aversion in the place of it? Give me that prescription!”
With terrified, staring eyes, and trembling in every nerve, the woman fell down on her knees before me, and when I said to her: “Hitherto thou hast always had a place in my prayers, dost thou wish me to cast thee forth from my remembrance with curses?” she began to smile.
“’Tis the first time in your life that you have ‘thou’d’ me. Let me then return the compliment. But no, I cannot thou thee. The word thou cannot come out of my mouth. Don’t lift me up. Let me kneel before you. I fain would only weep, but no tears will flow. Here is the prescription. Destroy it if you like. I was mad. I knew not what I said. ’Tis true. If life be grievous to me, ’tis I who ought to die.”
“What you now say is also a sin. Heaven does not give us that divine spark, the spirit, only that we may fling it back again. Learn to bear your sorrows in silence. Every one of us has his cross which God has laid upon him that he may carry it . . . If you would believe in the saints, follow their example. Be a martyr, if God so wills it — that is the real Catholic faith. . . . ”
She began to sob, but after some little difficulty I contrived to pacify her. I also provided her with all sorts of good homely counsels. “A good wife,” I said, “ought to humour her husband, and not sit in judgment on his faults.” I told her to bring him to me and introduce me to him. Perhaps I might make some impression on him, and prevail upon him not to press his crotchets too far. It was even possible that I might find him some work to do, something relating to spiritual subjects which might occupy his mind, kindle his ambition, and make him peel off his cynical husk. No doubt he was a good and worthy man, who only needed to be properly taken in hand to get on very well.
The lady with the eyes like the sea listened with many shakes of the head, but she had gradually grown much more quiet. Those eyes of hers, how they could express gratitude! It really seemed as if, beneath the influence of my words, her face was recovering the rosy hue that it had lost.
Alas, no! Vain thought! ’Twas not my words, but something else.
She arose and rallied her spirits.
“Very well! I’ll take your advice. I will endure. I will be patient. I will down with every evil thought. I will show that I can be a good wife. You shall be satisfied with me. But one thing I’ll tell you. My husband has threatened to strike me. If ever he does that, then God be merciful both to him and me.”
Now I knew why her face had turned so red —“If my husband dishonours me by a single blow, I swear that I’ll seize a gun and shoot him dead!” And with that she rushed out of the room. I felt as if I ought to call after her: “Don’t go home, wretched woman!”
It was too late. She was already outside the door. She had vanished like a vision of the night.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10