Emericus Vahot had discovered a youthful humorist whom he attached to the staff of his newspaper. Ultimately he became a most eminent writer, but at first he was quite a savage genius. He knew no languages but Hungarian and Latin. He was really after all a very worthy young fellow. He, too, took his place amongst us at the “Table of Public Opinion,” and even brought a pair of friends with him. One of the friends was a wry-shouldered critic, who judged the stage from a philological point of view, but the other was Muki Bagotay. He was not a writer, but a mere figure head. As, however, he drank with us, he considered himself as one of us.
One afternoon the humorist and Muki fell out. Muki had thought good to boast of a certain conquest of his, the humorist had made a joke of it; a squabble ensued, and from words they came to blows. I was not there, but I heard all about it from those who were. There could not be a doubt that the end of it would be a duel. Late in the evening, just as I was preparing to go to bed, the wry-shouldered critic rushed into my room. His face was even more portentous than usual.
“I have to communicate a secret to you, but you must give me your word as a gentleman not to let the matter go any further.”
“I give you my word upon it.”
“Our friend is going to fight Muki Bagotay tomorrow, I am his second.”
“That’s all right.”
“Would you be so good as to lend us the weapons?”
“My friend, I only possess one pistol, and that is a double-barrelled one.”
“That will just do!”
“What the deuce? I suppose one of them will fire with it first, and if he does not hit his man he’ll hand it over to the other, and he’ll fire back with it?”
The crooked critic said this with such a solemn face that it was impossible not to believe him. This was quite a novel mode of duelling, and not a bad idea either.
Early next morning, before I had got up, the second again appeared before me. He brought back the fatal pistol.
“It is over,” said he, with mournful dignity.
“What was the result?”
“Our poor friend was hit!”
“The bullet penetrated his arm. But it has been taken out now.”
The news excited all my sympathy.
I threw on my clothes and made my way to the Pillwax coffee-house. I found my good friends already at the “Table of Public Opinion,” and every one of them shared my compassion. The critic related the mournful details to us.
All at once two of our comrades, Degré and Lauka, rushed excitedly into the coffee-house. “The whole duel was a swindle!” they cried. “There was no harm done to any one. He was not even wounded. He is lying in bed with his arm tied up, and a bloody shirt; they are giving him ice cataplasms — the whole thing is a pure farce!”
The second, however, solemnly maintained that his principal had been wounded.
“We will convince ourselves of the fact.”
“Surely you would not want them to tear the bandages from the gaping wound?” This I also resolutely opposed, and, taking the part of my colleague, devised another expedient.
“Who was the doctor who bound up the wound?”
The critic mentioned the doctor’s name.
“We’ll go to the doctor, then.”
Dr. K——y was a worthy, honest, high-spirited fellow, who well deserved the public respect.
We rushed upon him in a body.
“Tell us, now,” we said, “is there a wound on the arm of the humorist?”
“There is,” replied the doctor.
“Is it true that you took a bullet out of it?”
“It is true.”
“On your professional reputation?”
“On my professional reputation.”
With that my friends were bound to be satisfied. No further inquiries could be made.
When, however, my two friends had withdrawn, I remained behind with the doctor, and I said to him, “My dear doctor, you have answered the question, did you take a bullet out of our friend’s arm? but now answer me this question, who put that bullet in?”
“Egad! egad! egad!” growled the doctor, “you imaginative people are really sad scamps!”
The fact was that our humorist and Muki Bagotay had fought an American duel: whoever drew the black ball had — well, not to die, but to get Dr. K——y to make a wound in his arm. The doctor, with his lancet, made an incision about two centimètres in length and four millemètres in depth, in the epidermis just below the biceps; into this wound he insinuated a bullet, then took it out, sewed up the wound, and so wounded honour was amply satisfied. And I’ll not say a single word against this being the most correct mode of procedure imaginable.
Then I went home to my native town, ostensibly to advertise my legal diploma, but really to look once more upon her from whom I had been so long absent.
I was very well received in the bosom of my family; the whole clan came together for dinner at my mother’s, and for supper at the house of my brother-in-law, Francis Vály. The two Calvinist ministers were also invited, and one of them toasted me as “the ward of one guardian and the guardian of two wards” (an allusion to my father’s profession and my new drama, The Two Wards); it was the first toast that made me blush.
The next day was the meeting of the county board, at the end of which, with open doors, my diploma was promulgated. On that self-same day my dear mother gave me my father’s silver-mounted sword, and the cornelian signet-ring, with the old family crest engraved upon it, which he used to wear. Democrat as I am, I frankly confess that to me there was a soul-steeling thought in the reflection that with this sword my worthy ancestors, who were much better men than myself, had defended their nation, country, laws, and constitution of yore, and that this signet-ring had put the seal upon their covenanted rights for all time. According to ancient custom, the sword and signet-ring of the father belonged of right to the younger son; my father had given my elder brother a ring and sword of his own when he brought home his diploma.
After that, I had to pay visits of ceremony to the county and municipal authorities; I called upon my principal also, and a pretty little girl was there whose features I had perpetuated in a portrait; she still went to the convent school. This little girl, I may add, never had her romance; she died young, and thus found her true bliss.
It was only in the afternoon that I was able to get to Bessy’s.
Among all earthly joys, is there one that can be compared with that heart-throbbing which a young man feels when he again approaches, after a long absence, the woman whom he idolises, with the thought that she also has been dreaming of him all the time? It is true that our parting had been somewhat abrupt, and a hill of thorns had risen up between us perhaps in consequence; but, on the other hand, my absence had had a definite, deliberate aim — I went to win for myself name and fame, and a worldly position. And lo! but six months had passed and all this was already accomplished. I was an author. I had the right to speak of myself in the plural “we,” like a king; nay, I had even a better right, for the king can only lay the peasantry under contribution, but I could make the gentry pay up as well, and that right was also “Dei gratia.” I fancied the whole world was mine, and that triumphs would go before and follow after me whithersoever I went.
I was dressed according to the latest fashion. The famous firm of tailors, “Martinek and Korsinek,” had performed a masterpiece upon me: my feet were shod with varnished dress-shoes, I had a whale-bone cane with a gold-headed handle, I wore Jaquemar gloves. I no longer singed my hair with heated hair-tongs as in the days when I was a patvarist, but a hairdresser had twisted it into ringlets; and now, too, I had a sprucely twisted moustache and a beard.
I really must make the most of all these glories to emphasize the dramatic climax.
I found Bessy’s mother and her aunt in the well-known reception room; the companion was on a visit to her relations. After the ceremonial kissing of hands, my first question was, “And Miss Bessy?”
“She is in her own room, yonder.”
“May I go there?”
“Oh, by all means!”
It was that memorable room in which I had painted her portrait.
The girl was alone, seated by her little table, and was bending over her embroidery frame. She really must have been very much absorbed in her work, as otherwise she must certainly have seen through the window that I was coming to her. It was a sort of pearl embroidery that she was busy over, meant apparently for the cover of a portfolio. On perceiving me enter, she hastily covered it with her handkerchief, but for all that, my eyes caught a momentary glimpse of a large letter “J.” on the embroidery. What else could it be but the initial letter of my surname? I was confirmed in this belief by the circumstance that on the same little table stood my portrait of her on a gorgeous stand.
She greeted me kindly, but I could detect a certain hostile sentiment in her smile. It is only in the eyes that one can read such things, and practised swordsmen always can tell from the expression of their opponents’ eyes how they are going to lunge.
She questioned me about everything, and I replied with great precision; but these questions and answers were mere feints: the points of the swords were so far only twirling around each other.
All at once she lunged straight at my head with her sword.
“And pray what is the amiable little sapling doing?”
In my first amazement I absolutely did not know what she was alluding to.
“Why, that darling little stage fairy, of course, who kindled you to such enthusiasm.”
So it turned up again now! Even here they cast it in my teeth! Was it not enough to have smarted once in my life for pretty Lilla’s sake? In vain did I assure her that never in my life had I seen the young artiste except on the stage; that there indeed she had earned my admiration, but that I had never felt any tender sentiment either for her or for any other mortal maiden in the whole of Buda–Pest.
“Let that go, then!” said Bessy mockingly. “We are well informed of everything that goes on. How about your landlord’s three pretty daughters?”
“Pardon me, but the eldest of them is only nine years old.”
“And your gay neighbours, the flower-garden ladies?”
Well, this was simply appalling. How could I tell her the whole story? And yet I was the very person who had got them removed.
“Whom the Town Captain was forced to interfere with? Oh, we know all about it! My little finger has whispered it to me.”
I was quite confused. Who could have been tittle-tattling about me so?
And all the time her eyes were flashing sparks at me!
But I was not to remain in doubt long. A new visitor arrived, his voice was already heard in the ante-chamber. It was Muki Bagotay.
It was plain to me now that it was he who had whispered all these things to Bessy.
Into the room he rushed. He certainly was infamously handsome. My head of curls was quite dwarfed by his. His dress was much more fashionable than mine. And what a cocksure air he had! I dared not so much as press Bessy’s hand, while he knelt down before her and laid his hat — together with his heart — at her feet.
“Go away with you — don’t be silly!” said Bessy, by way of correction, pointing at me.
“Your servant, comrade,” cried Muki, becoming aware of my presence.
Then he occupied himself with me no more, but turned towards Bessy and tried to remove the handkerchief from the embroidery, which attempt Bessy resisted with all her might.
“It’s mine, after all, you know,” insisted Muki.
“Then wait your turn, and you shall have it on your birthday.”
His birthday! A thought flashed through my brain. Muki’s name was János. That initial letter was his, not mine.
A dramatic climax. How instantly Muki became the sensible fellow and I the blockhead! At that moment I must have cut a somewhat queer figure the very type of gaping confusion.
By way of explanation Muki seized Bessy’s hand and raised it to his lips, and said to me as a matter of form, “Bessy is my betrothed.”
And it was for this, then, that all these Sardanapalian accusations had been piled upon my head. The sapling of the stage, the flower-garden, and my landlord’s young ladies were the golden bridge for a retreat.
It was only then that I hit upon more sensible ideas and hastened to congratulate them.
And now I made it a point to remain where I was. They shall see that the whole matter is of the utmost indifference to me.
“You know, I suppose,” said Muki, “what was the cause of my last duel?”
“That famous duel of yours, eh?”
“Yes, it was pretty famous, I think. That poor young fellow whom I shot was a worthy comrade, but had he been my born brother I would have shot him for his disrespectful allusions to my bride.”
“Go along with you, you bloodthirsty man!” cried Bessy, with coquettish self-satisfaction.
And he had the cheek to say all this before me who knew the whole history of the duel! How ridiculous I could have made him look, if I had told how it had happened! But do it I wouldn’t, because I felt that they were a worthy pair. I merely said: “I must admit, friend Muki, that in the way of imagination you are much greater than I.”
“And greater in other things also,” said Muki, half drawing his sword.
“We’ll see about that one of these days in the fencing-school.”
“What! That swindling fencing! Wrestling is the thing to test a man’s mettle. That fashionable gymnastic rubbish is a mere farce. I should like to see a fellow do what I can do when I go out on my puszta.23 I have a stout gulgásy24 there, Peter Gyuricza, with whom I am wont to wrestle. A stalwart fellow, hard as a stone; he can keep the upper hand over a hundred steers. Twice out of three bouts have I floored Peter Gyuricza, and Peter Gyuricza has only floored me once.”
23 The Hungarian steppe or great plain.]
24 Neat-herd, peculiar to Hungary.]
“A pretty pastime, certainly.”
“It is not to be learnt by pen-scribbling or brush-daubing, anyhow.”
That I had to let pass, for there’s no getting over the truth. It is not only true that I was no Samson, but it is also true that, compared with a hundred oxen, my poor Pegasus was but a sorry beast of draught. But Muki Bagotay was not even content with this triumph, he wanted to absolutely trample me beneath his feet; and as if he had only just observed for the first time the picture of Bessy painted by me, he chose to make that the bone of contention.
“Meanwhile, till I possess the original, I appropriate this picture.”
Bessy protested. “No, no, I will not part with that.”
But Muki thereupon took the picture from the table and held it aloft, so that Bessy could not get it out of his hand. She begged, implored, raved, but Muki only laughed and said he meant to stick to the picture.
It was then that my ill-humour got the better of me.
“Sir,” said I, laying my hand on his shoulder, “put down that portrait! I did not paint it for you.”
How scornfully he looked at me over his shoulder! “You would needs try conclusions with me —you, a mere poet!”
And he flung himself upon me with the pious resolve of forcing me out of Bessy’s boudoir into the ante-chamber. When he saw that I resisted, he threw both his arms round my body. I also hugged him, and to work we went straightway.
Muki was furious because I would not allow my frame to be smashed so easily. Bessy began shrieking, and took refuge in the bow window. Suddenly I rallied all my strength and pitched Muki on to the sofa with such violence that the back of it cracked and came off.
“I also am a Peter Gyuricza!” I cried.
I would not have exchanged that triumph for all the glory in the world.
At the noise of this great scuffle, the mother and the aunt rushed into the room, and great was their indignation when they saw me kneeling on Muki’s breast.
“Let me get up, fellow!” said my antagonist.
All that I wanted to do was to take the portrait from the hands of its unlawful possessor. Meanwhile the poor portrait had got terribly mauled. During the struggle it had fallen to the ground, and the pair of us had left the impression of our heels upon it. Bessy burst into tears when she saw the wreckage of her own portrait, but her mother lamented over the broken sofa.
I comforted Bessy with the assurance that I would make the damaged portrait all right again — there were special colours for that.
“But she must not sit again,” hastily intervened her mother. She was afraid I should begin coming to the house again and spoil the good match.
“And I haven’t got that dress either,” said Bessy.
It certainly was a pretty dress. Would that she had never had it!
I assured them, however, that I would be able to put the picture to rights at home, all by myself. And with that I put it in my pocket. I never went back there again.
The mother and the aunt ostentatiously occupied themselves with Muki, expressing all the time their regretful sympathy, at which he was beside himself for fury.
I beat a retreat without any attempt to say good-bye. But Bessy ran after me, and, overtaking me in the doorway, seized my hand, and whispered in an ardent voice, “You’ll put me to rights, won’t you?”
“The portrait? oh yes!”
An hour afterwards I was sitting on the steamer and gazing at the lingering smoke which hid my native town from my eyes. It was just as if I were returning from a funeral.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56