After the March days, I quitted the Petöfis and went into another lodging. I had got on so well that I could maintain a bachelor’s establishment, consisting of two rooms, which I furnished myself. Properly speaking, it only became a bachelor’s establishment when I entered, for before I took it it was occupied by a little old woman who kept a registry office for providing respectable families with servants. Every one knew “Mámi,” as she was called. . . . I was very well satisfied with my lodging, which quite answered all my requirements. It had this one drawback, however, that a whole mob of cooks, parlour-maids, and nursery-maids were constantly opening my door under the persuasion that I could provide them with places, and they disturbed my work terribly. Besides, this constant flow of petticoats towards my door was sufficient of itself to bring a young man into disrepute. From the apartments at the opposite end of the corridor it was possible to catch a glimpse of my door, and it was just in these very apartments that Rosa Laborfalvy lived. I was afraid that some one might think ill of me.
It was no longer the Weltschmerz, but a Privatschmerz,32 that afflicted me.
32 Privát fájdalmas— private anxiety.]
Again I had applied myself to portrait-painting. A tall, slender girl in a white atlas dress, with large black eyes, and coal-black ringlets à l’Anglaise rolling down to her shoulders, was standing on my easel; I was just giving it the finishing-touch, I had no need for the original to be my model. I have the portrait to this day.
All at once there came a knocking at my door “Come in!” The door opened, and in came a stylish young peasant girl. I thought as much; here we have another nursery-maid in search of a place.
“No, no; go away! The registry-office lady does not live here!” said I viciously, for I was busy with my portrait; and perceiving that the intruder did not retire even now, I bawled out, not over gently: “In Heaven’s name, be off, my dear!”
At this the peasant girl began to laugh. Had I not heard that laughing voice somewhere before? I turned round and looked at her, and the more I looked, the more astonished I felt. It was Bessy!
She wore a bright red gown trimmed with yellowish-green flowers, over that a dark blue, double-bordered damask apron, and a black silk bodice with puff sleeves. Above the bodice was a bib with beautifully embroidered palm flowers; on her head sat a cockscomb like Haube, frilled with starched thread-lace; on her arm she carried a covered basket by the handle.
Her face was ruddy and bronzed from exposure to the sun, and a sort of waggish little imp was nestling provocatively in her smiling features. I couldn’t believe my own eyes.
“What! don’t you know me?” she cried, with a merry laugh. “I’m Bessy!”
I saw that, but for the life of me I could not conceive what her object was in coming masquerading like this through the streets of Buda in broad daylight. And to hit upon my lodgings of all places in the world!
“Madame de Bagotay?” I stammered in my confusion.
“Oh, I am no longer Madame Bagotay, but Madame Peter Gyuricza!”
“What on earth do you mean? Mrs. Gyuricza! The wife of a herdsman?”
My amazement was so genuine that Bessy clapped her hands together with glee.
“Then you actually don’t know about it? They haven’t written to you from home?”
“It is a long time since I received a letter from home.”
“But this was a scandal which set seven counties in an uproar; there has been nothing like it since the French Revolution — and you call yourself the editor of a newspaper!”
“My paper does not meddle with purely family matters.”
Bessy’s face was flushed, and she began smoothing it with the palms of both hands; she thought, perhaps, that she would brush the tell-tale blush away.
“I have heated myself a little on that steep staircase of yours,” she said.
She blamed the staircase for that flaming face of hers.
It then occurred to me that it would only be polite to ask my fair visitor to take a seat. I offered her the sofa.
“Oh, dear, no! That’s only for ladies! This will do quite well enough for me.” And with that she sat down on my trunk, and put down her basket beside it. “I really am quite tired. I have travelled by the corn-boat as far as Vácz,33 and thence I have walked all the way to Pest.”
“But you could have gone by steamer?”
“But my master34 could not give me steamboat fare. We are poor people. Look! this is my whole provision for the journey.”
34 i.e., husband.]
And with that she lifted the lid of the basket, and showed me what was inside it: a piece of black bread, and something wrapped up in greasy paper — a piece of cheese possibly, and a garlic-seasoned sausage.
“I must keep this for my return journey.”
The cynicism of the proceeding revolted me.
“But now, if you please, I should very much like to know what’s the meaning of it all. Is it a practical joke you are playing upon me?”
“Oh, no! certainly not! Pray don’t suppose that I have dressed up on your account. I am now a real peasant woman, and such I mean to remain. It is a serious thing for me, I can tell you, and I’ve come to you, not that you may write about it in your paper, but that you may give me advice.”
“I give you advice?”
“Certainly! Whom else should I ask? The whole world condemns and tramples upon me, and yet I have offended nobody, not even in thought. You are the only one I have injured, bitterly injured, so it is from you that I must seek protection.”
Woman’s logic with a vengeance! I stood up in front of her, leaning on the edge of the table. I was contriving all the time to prevent her from seeing the portrait I was painting.
“I’ll begin from the very beginning,” continued the lady, lowering her long eyelashes. “I was married. So much you know. We gave a splendid banquet. The whole town, half the county was there. I fancy they described it in the newspapers; and why shouldn’t they, when the richest, best-known, and most handsome girl in the town was married to the ideal cavalier? The lady brought a dowry of 100,000 florins, and the gentleman conveyed his bride to his ancestral castle in a carriage drawn by four fiery horses. The universal envy was a more piquant grace to the meal than the benediction of the priest. The gentlemen envied the bridegroom, and the ladies envied the bride, and every one was forced to say: ‘A couple made for each other.’ Alas! the only joy which remained in my heart when I came out of church and looked among the crowd was the thought, ‘Ah! you all envy me, I know!’
“We went straight from church to my husband’s castle,” continued Bessy. “Thirty carriages escorted us. I counted them. A splendid banquet followed. That day I changed my dress four times. The fifth time I put on a lace négligé, and the bridesmaids led me to the bridal chamber. This room was a veritable masterpiece of upholstery. A Vienna furnisher had decorated it most elaborately. I couldn’t sleep all night. The voice of the bass viol and the clarionet resounded in my ears from the banqueting-room, and the noise and uproar of the guests also. I did not see my husband till the morning. Then the guests began to disperse. Only now and then did a cracked and piping voice mingle with the frantic music of the gipsies. Then it was that my husband appeared before me, and a pitiable object he looked. He called me his darling little sister, and asked me if I could tell him where he lived. Then he undressed himself on the sofa and talked such nonsense that at last I couldn’t help laughing. ‘Well,’ said I to myself, ‘I suppose this is always the way when they take leave of their bachelordom.’ Then sleep overcame me and I dreamed the silliest stuff. You were continually in my dreams. But why mention such things now?”
With that she readjusted the kerchief which was tied around her head-dress and proceeded:—
“It was afternoon when I awoke. I must have wept a great deal in my dreams, for the pillow on which my head lay was quite wet. My husband was no longer reposing on the sofa, but sprawling on the floor like a stuffed frog. It cost me a great deal of trouble to shake him into life again. It was a still greater effort to make him understand in what part of the world he was, and in what relations we stood to each other here below. After that he insisted upon my crawling with him under the sofa, and when I wouldn’t hear of it, he began to cry like a child, and demanded a pistol from me that he might blow his brains out. Then I brought a washing-basin and washed his face for him, and ducked it once or twice in cold water. He roared like a baby who is being tubbed, but finally recovered his spirits, and allowed himself to be raised from the ground. Then he drank out of the water-jug, and his eyes opened, but they were as tiny as a mole’s, and I now perceived for the first time that they were a little crooked.”
During this narration Bessy laughed and laughed again.
“What a sight the fellow did look! his hair all rumpled, his moustache all askew, his clothes soiled and tousled. He had to be dressed all over again. I began to scold him a little, ‘A pretty condition of things, I must say!’ To which he replied that I ought to have seen his comrades, Nusi, and Lenezi, and Blekus, and how they had been settled. They had all fallen under the table, and he had remained the victor. And he yawned so much as he told me this, that I had to beg him not to swallow me. At last I got him to sit down on a chair while I did his hair for him, and he meanwhile howled and swore continually that every single hair pained him as much as if devils were tweaking him with iron pincers.”
Again the lady stopped to laugh.
“That’s quite a novel state of things to you, eh? A person who becomes the bride of an out-and-out dandy must expect to see something extraordinary. But perhaps there was nothing extraordinary in it after all. And now the banquet was resumed, commencing with a pick-me-up. I presided at the table with a turban on my head. All our guests were still drunk. I had to listen to very peculiar anecdotes. At such times the best man is he who can pay the new bride the compliment which will make her blush the most. The lady guests had all departed in the morning, and had come to bid me good-bye one by one. They all wept over me — it is the usual thing. I was the only lady left, and glad was I when I managed to get away from the gentlemen. I think that they had been awaiting my withdrawal; they could then continue their interrupted pastime. Again I could not sleep; my head was throbbing. For the first time in my life I recognised the existence of the headache, that frightful curse of feminine nerves which I had hitherto always put down to affectation or imagination. How good it would have been for me if some one had laid a cool, refreshing hand upon my temples! Perhaps a single word of comfort would have relieved my pangs! I waited for it in vain. I sent a message. He never came to me. Suddenly, while an oppressive dream was benumbing my pain, a hellish uproar awoke me. I fancied that Pandemonium had been let loose. It was only my husband, but he had brought with him the whole of his drunken crew. I saw before me a whole legion of them, with guffawing, sardonic, lascivious, distorted faces, and amongst them my husband, with the grin of a satyr on his idiotic face. I rose in terror from my bed, cast my counterpane around me, fled into my waiting-maid’s room, and barricaded myself behind the door. There he thumped and thundered for some time. I threatened to throw myself out of the window if he broke in by force. Thereupon some of his comrades, in whom a little human feeling still remained, contrived to drag him away, though not without difficulty. Then followed a little sulky squabble on both sides. I wouldn’t leave my room for four-and-twenty hours; he wouldn’t come to me. The noise that he made over head was sufficient evidence to me that he hadn’t committed suicide in the meantime. The third day was passed by the bridal guests in a more profitable occupation. They played at cards. The table, vigorously punched by their fists, proclaimed their handiwork aloud. It was like blacksmiths’ apprentices pounding iron on the anvil with sledgehammers. Only in the morning did ‘my lord and master’ turn up while I was still only half-dressed. He was sober then, and, what is more, ill-tempered. His loss at cards was mirrored in his face like a guilty conscience. He frankly told me all about it. He had been peppered finely, and his comrades were vile curs. . . . Such was my wedding.”
Bessy covered her face with both her hands. Was she laughing? Was she weeping? I cannot say.
All at once she asked me, “Did you ever play at cards?”
“Yes, but only for copper coins.”
“It’s all one. You ought not to waste your time with it.”
“Well, really, I only spend that time on it which I do not know how to employ otherwise, the time when I am tired of work, and want a rest from thinking. Cards are very good things at such times.”
“Then what a pity girls also do not learn the science of card-playing at school, just as they learn to find out towns on maps, or gather the properties of exotic plants and animals from zoological albums; then at least a newly-married bride would understand why it is necessary to subtract so much from her heritage to sacrifice it to such mythological deities as skiz and pagát.35 . . . ”
35 Terms used in Tarok.]
Meanwhile I didn’t interrupt her, but remained standing and looking at her with my hands resting on the table. This seemed to put her out.
“Why don’t you smoke a cigar? Don’t mind me.”
“I would only remind you that you used always to make fun of me because I didn’t smoke.”
“True. Smoking becomes a man. A cigar or a pipe makes his face so cosy-looking. Just look at any man who hasn’t a pipe stuck into his mouth, and tell me if he doesn’t look like a judge pronouncing judgment, or a priest shriving a penitent? Believe me, that one of the reasons why I was faithless to you was that you didn’t smoke. Well, at any rate, I have got my reward for it.
“Now, Muki used to suck Havannahs all day. Yes, nothing but Havannahs; but Gyuricza smokes the coarsest tobacco, and even chews pigtail.”
I burst out laughing; I couldn’t help it. In what ways are a woman’s graces gained! No, I wouldn’t chew pigtail if the favour of the Goddess Melpomene herself depended on it.
“I will not weary you with our diversions at Paris. There, I perceived, it is the common practice for husband and wife to take their pleasures apart. My husband did no more than what other husbands do. It is not good form to ask a husband who returns home at dawn where he has been. Besides, Muki, with perfect candour, informed me all about these places of public entertainment and the joys of les petits soupers; once he took me with him to these delights — I didn’t ask to go again. . . . I was very glad when the season was over and we returned to our village, and after all the bustling diversions, flirtations, visitings and boredom, I could once more be alone and fill my straw hat with forget-me-nots on the banks of the river, as of old on the island. You remember my visit to your rustic hut, don’t you? You remember the golden thrushes who used to speak to you? To you they said, ‘Silly boy! silly boy!’ to me they cried, ‘What’s the good! what’s the good!’ On returning to his estates my husband became quite another man: you would have said that he was a changeling. The dainty dandy became an enthusiastic agriculturist. He was up early, on horseback all day, went from one puszta to another, and brought home ears of barley in his hat. The only things he talked about at home were sheepshearing and the diseases of horned cattle. He had a stud and a neat-herd, and of the latter he appeared to be particularly proud. Sometimes he drove me all over his demesne in a light gig. A fine demesne it was. You might drive about it the whole day and not see the whole of it. He showed me his herds. He told me that herds like them were not to be had in the whole kingdom. I didn’t understand it. All that I could see was that the oxen had very large horns. But the form of the herdsman really did surprise me. He was a veritable ancient-hero sort of a man, such as we imagine the primeval Magyars to have been who wandered hither out of Asia. His bronzed face beamed with health, his thick black hair whipped his shoulders with its greasy curls, and add to that his sun-defying glance, his stately bearing, his long mantle embroidered with tulips and cast lightly across his shoulder. His white linen garment fluttered in the breeze, and when he raised his arm to take off his cap, the loose fluttering short sleeves fell right back and revealed an arm like the arm of the figure of an athlete cast in bronze. ‘Why, Peter,’ said I, ‘is it with you that your master is wont to wrestle?’ The Hercules, thus addressed, timidly cast down his eyes and said: ‘Yes!’ ‘But how on earth is your master ever able to throw you?’ At this question, Peter Gyuricza shifted his mantle from one shoulder to the other, and twisting his moustache, replied: ‘As often as his Excellency throws me I get five florins.’ So that was the secret of Muki’s acrobatic triumphs. After that, the herdsman conducted us to the great summer farm, which was a good distance from the hut where the calves are put to rest at midday. There, a savoury luncheon, prepared by the wife of the herdsman, awaited us. She was a buxom, smart young woman, with roguish eyes and radiating eyebrows, all life and freshness, a true blossom of the puszta.36 I caught myself looking repeatedly in the mirror, and making comparisons between her face and my own. After luncheon we went all round the farm, and the herdsman’s wife guided us from stable to stable. A thorn got into my foot through my slipper. The herdsman’s wife bobbed down and drew the thorn out. ‘You don’t feel the thorn now, do you?’ she asked, flashing a look upon me. ‘I do not feel it in my foot,’ I replied.”
36 i.e., a true heath-flower.]
Bessy paused for a moment, and smoothed her brows with both hands as if to refresh her memory.
“I took another sort of thorn away with me. I began to be suspicious of the grand economical zeal of my husband. Such assiduity was not natural. Early one morning he again took horse, called to his greyhounds, and told me not to wait for him to dinner, he would not be home till evening. A certain instinct would not let me rest. I went out into the garden, right to the boundary fence and into the stubble beyond, and then I went on foot into the puszta, through the turnip fields and the Indian corn. Nobody saw me. The vesper-bell was ringing in the village when I entered the courtyard of the herdsman. In the stubble I saw the two dogs hunting a hare on their own account. Truly, a Cockney sportsman who allows his dogs to win their own meat like that! I whistled to them, they recognised me and came leaping around me. ‘Where’s your master?’ The dogs understood me. They began yelping and barking, and darted on before me helter-skelter, with their heads between their legs as if to give me to understand that they would lead me to the spot if I followed them. They made straight for the hut. No doubt they fancied they were doing something very knowing. When I marched in at the door the little servant exclaimed, ‘Good gracious!’ and let fall the wooden trencher in which she was kneading some dough with a large pot-ladle, and when I advanced towards the dwelling-room door, she stood in my way, and said, ‘Please don’t go in now!’ I boxed her ears for her, first on the right side and then on the left, pushed her into a cupboard and locked the door upon her. Then I opened the door of the dwelling-room. There was nobody there. But the door of a little side room, which in peasants’ houses is, as a rule, always open, was closed. On the table, however, I perceived my lord’s hat and his riding-whip. I made no disturbance. The clothes of the herdsman’s wife lay in a heap on a bench. I took off my clothes and put on hers carefully, one by one. I was just as you see me now.”
She stood up before me and turned herself round that I might have a better look at her.
“Then I went into the outer hut again, and picked the ladle from the floor which the maid had let fall in her terror. It was a mess of bacon dumplings that she had been engaged upon. I kneaded the dough for the dumplings, I made twelve beautiful little round ones out of it, boiled them, beat up a nice garlic sauce with them, and poured the whole lot of it into a varnished jug, first tasting to see that it was not over salted. Then I tied up the jar in my kerchief, and set off with it towards the pasturage. But another idea also occurred to me. I concealed behind my apron my husband’s riding whip that was reposing on the table, and took it away with me.
“The pasturage is pretty far from the hut. It was somewhat late when I arrived there. The herdsman was quite impatient, and had climbed up a ‘look-out’ tree, and when he saw my striped dress and bright red kerchief, he began to bawl out, ‘Hillo! Come along, can’t you! I’ll give you what for! I’ll teach you something, you cursed blockhead! What have you done with my dinner? A pretty time when they’re already ringing vespers in the village. I suppose you’ve been carrying on with his honour again? Let me catch you at it, that’s all, and I’ll tickle your hide for you with my whip.’ When I got up to him and lifted the kerchief from my head, he stopped short with his mouth open. ‘Well, I never! if it isn’t her ladyship!’—‘True, Peter!’ said I. ‘I’ve cooked your dinner for you, and now you see I’ve brought it to you. Your wife cannot come. She’s learning French from my husband. I’ve also brought with me my husband’s whip. I found it on your table. You may flog with it whomever you like, either me or your wife.’”
Here she stopped short. She evidently meant me to find out the rest of the story for myself.
“Poor woman!” I murmured. I was sorry and embarrassed.
She burst out laughing.
“Don’t pity me, pray! I am perfectly happy. Gyuricza did not strike me with his whip. I am now mistress in the herdsman’s hut.”
And she seemed quite proud of it all!
Then she began to tell me of her new hero with real enthusiasm. He was what man was meant to be when first created, all strength and truth; there was nothing artificial, nothing false, nothing effeminate about him. “When he comes home at night he goes to the fireplace to smoke his pipe; then he empties a can of buttermilk to the very dregs. Wine is only put upon the table on Sundays. Then he asks, ‘Have you any good dumpling soup, sweetheart?’ ‘Of course I have, and cured bacon and groat pottage as well.’ As soon as it is ready we turn it out and sit down to it. We eat with tin spoons out of a large common dish. No invitation is needed there. The lady herself fetches the water from the spring. The master drinks one half of it and offers the other half to his wife: ‘You drink too!’ And after that they don’t go in for much stargazing, nor do they care a fig for the world and all its thousand troubles. They sleep with open doors, and the four sheep-dogs guard the house.
“At three o’clock in the morning Bessy gets up and goes into the stable to milk the cows; by dawn it must be all done. The little milking-stool is now her throne. She pours the fresh foaming milk into the pails and takes them into the cellar with the help of the serving maid. When the boy sounds his horn the cows must be driven out; they must be pastured apart from the brood-cows. And all this time the master is eating his breakfast: peppered bacon and green leeks with good papramorgó,37 and then he follows his herds out into the pastures. The reason why he cracks his whip so loudly is because he knows that some one is standing there in the little door and looking after him. Then she has to skim the cream from the standing milk, churn the milk, and take the butter to market. Then she has to buckle to bread-baking. The maid is sent to heat the oven; meanwhile she herself is kneading the dough, then she shovels out the burning embers with the oven scoop, and wipes down the inside of the oven with a wet kitchen-clout; then the loaves are shot in by means of the long baking-shovel (first of all, however, are baked the ‘fire-cakes,’ which ‘my soul’38 loves so much), finally the ‘lock-up’ stone is smeared with clay and placed in front of the oven, and one must be ready to an instant to pull the stone from the mouth of the oven again and take out the loaves. Meanwhile, she has had time to prepare upon the hearth a pottage of millet and smoked bacon, and carry it quickly, pot and all, to the pasturage, so that when the mid-day bell rings, the master may have his victuals ready laid on his outspread fur pelisse. After dinner, beneath the shadow of the big wild nut-tree, she may take a nap with an apron thrown over her face. On returning home she gets out her bruised flax and heckles it, so that when the husband returns home he finds wife and family sitting by the distaff and singing together the spinning songs of the country folk, till the pigs come running home with a great grunting and demand their slush. — Oh, such a life as that is pure enjoyment!”
37 A sort of eau-devie.]
38 Lelkem, i.e., “My darling.”]
I shook my head dubiously.
“It will bore you one day.”
“Bore me! Don’t you recollect when I was in your lath hut I painted this very life to you as my ideal? — A hut of rushes and a bed of straw. You spoke to me of fame and glory. The lowing of kine, the tinkling of sheep-bells, the cracking of whips is my delight. It was so even then. Since that time I have learnt to know the great world, but it hasn’t altered me. I am full of disgust with everything that is to be found in palaces. Those demi-men, those Sunday husbands — those refined and exquisitely polite she-sinners, those model sticklers for virtue who sin through the whole ten commandments day after day, and vie even with the ladies of the ballet, with this difference, however, that the ballet-dancers are much more modest in private than these great ladies are in public — I am sick and weary of the whole lot of them. I would rather have a man who never washes his mouth after he has eaten garlic, than a man who returns home from an orgie and pretends he has been to a political conference. The famous Hamilton bed, which costs you a hundred ducats if you sleep in it for a single night, is wretchedness itself compared to the bed of fresh straw on which I sleep. Believe me when I tell you that I am perfectly happy.”
“I’ll believe anything you like, but there’s one circumstance I cannot understand. How is it that nobody disturbs this sweet idyll of yours? Is the one man who is so confoundedly nearly interested in your happiness, is that man still alive? Does Muki Bagotay still exist anywhere in the wide world?”
“I fancy so.”
“Well, if he does, I’ll only say that what flows through his veins is milk, not blood. Is he content to carry the horns of his hundred oxen? A rich and powerful landlord, a county magnate, and the master of your ideal peasant! — A thousand lightnings! if I were only in his place!”
Bessy, with a sarcastic smile, folded her hands together above her knees.
“Well, come now! If you were in dear Muki’s place what would you do?”
“I’ll tell you. I wouldn’t call Peter Gyuricza out, but one fine day I would put my democratic principles on the shelf, and collecting my heydukes and my rustics, I’d give chase to the herdsman, trounce him according to his deserts, and kick him out of my employment. I would get another herdsman; but as for my wife, I’d tie her to the pummel of my saddle, and drag her like that to my castle. That’s what I would do, were I the husband of Muki Bagotay’s wife!”
I had certainly got a little heated. It was only afterwards that I reflected, “What’s Hecuba to me? Why should I bother my head about Peter Gyuricza?”
Bessy, however, laughed most heartily.
“Ha! ha! ha! You’d have done that to me, would you? You’d have tied me to your horse’s tail and whipped me home, eh? How sorry I am then that I did not choose you! What a fine thing it would have been if I could have boasted of bearing the impression of your blows on my body! Tell me now, have you ever struck any one who was unable to hit you back?”
At this I was fairly put to silence.
“But let that be! You could not be so good a Muki Bagotay as Muki Bagotay himself would have been if he could. He actually did try the very recipe which you now recommend. The very next day he sent his bailiff with the verbal message to Peter Gyuricza to pack himself off forthwith, but me the bailiff was to bring straight home. The bailiff gave himself airs, and would have used force, so I gave him a sound box on the ears, which he’ll not forget in a hurry; whereupon Peter Gyuricza threw him out of the house.
“Next day the wounded honour of the offended husband resorted to still stronger measures: six pandurs39 appeared upon the scene with swords and pistols. Peter and I were outside in the pastures. Thither they came after us. But Peter was not a bit put out. He hastily called together his young shepherds; there were four of them; they caught up their cudgels, and the four sheep dogs took the same side. The six pandurs never dreamt we should tackle them. The corporal of the pandurs threatened to fire if we offered the least resistance. I immediately rushed forward in front of Peter, and said to them, ‘Very well! there you are! Fire!’ There was a pretty rumpus, the dogs began to bark, and at last even the stolid steers got mad, and the big old bull rushed out of the herd and charged straight at the pandurs, who were thronging round the herdsman. They took to their heels straightway, and those who did not leave their shakos behind them might think themselves lucky.”
39 County police.]
“Why, that was quite an epic poem!”
“Wasn’t it! But you haven’t heard the end of it yet. After the repulse of the second assault, Muki began to carry on the war in grim earnest. One evening, our maid, who had been sent out as a spy, came back with the terrifying news that his honour had sent out orders that on the following day all his tenants were to assemble in the courtyard of the castle armed with cudgels, flails, and pitchforks; to his huntsmen and heydukes also he had distributed guns and ammunition. The whole of this host was to advance upon us in battle array on the morrow. It would have been well, perhaps, to have fled before them while there was yet time. But we did not fly.”
“Then what was the end of it all?”
“A very droll ending indeed. When the danger was greatest, good luck sent a deliverer, a good friend, just as usually happens in happily-constructed dramas, who intervened with a mighty hand and diverted the stroke from our heads.”
“And who was this good friend?”
“Why, who else but the bearer of this fine blonde beard!” cried she, with an ironical smile, caressing my chin.
“I? Why, I was not in that part of the country at all.”
“Ah! but poets have long arms, you know. At the very moment when Muki was placing firearms in the hands of his peasants, freedom was proclaimed at Pest. The rumour spread throughout the kingdom like wildfire — the Revolution had broken out. They say in Pressburg that Petöfi and you were on the Rákos40 at the head of 40,000 peasants, and that a new Dózsa41 war had begun. The retainers of Muki also thronged up to his castle, not to carry me off by force, but to demand their liberties. ‘We’ll work no more!’ they cried; ‘we’ll pay no more tithes, and no more hearth-money.’42 Freedom had broken out with a vengeance! Muki was thereupon so terrified that he fled incontinently through the back door in the clothes of his lackey, and never stopped till he was safely out of the kingdom. I have heard nothing of him since. So you see your mighty hand turned aside the danger that was hovering over our heads. We drank your health afterwards in big bumpers.”
40 A plain to the east of Pest, where, from the earliest times, elective assemblies were held.]
41 George Dózsa, the leader of the Hungarian jacquerie of 1514, who was finally captured and executed after truly infernal torments.]
42 Füstpenz— lit., smoke money, so much on each chimney.]
I certainly had never calculated upon success of this sort.
“Well,” said I, “you have certainly disposed of Mr. János Nepomuk Bagotay for a time (though I would call your attention to the fact that he will not be very long in perceiving that there is no Dózsa war in Hungary, and will then return with reinforcements), but may I ask what her ladyship your mother says to all this?”
“I should have come to that, even if you had not asked me. In fact, this is the very thing which brings me to you. One fine evening when I was returning home from the maize fields, with my kerchief full of pods, I found an official notification nailed on the door of our hut. The lawyer’s clerk who brought it, delighted to find nobody at home, had fastened the document to the door-post and decamped. It gave me to understand that Muki was bringing an action against me for adultery. A term was fixed, however, within which, according to custom, we might appear before the priest at any place we liked and be reconciled if possible. After the lapse of six weeks the priest would make another attempt to bring about a reconciliation; if this did not succeed, he would bid us go to the ——! and we should have to appear before the judge instead!”
I now began to see to what I was indebted for the pleasure of her visit. I should very much have liked to have banged the door in her face with the words: “I am not a lawyer, though I have served my terms!” But I let her go on.
“I immediately took down the notification from the door,” she resumed, “and sent my little maid with it to town to my mother’s. By way of explanation I wrote her a letter, a task not unattended with difficulty, as Peter Gyuricza’s hut was singularly ill-provided with writing materials. First of all I had to manufacture ink from wild juniper berries, then I carved a pen from a goose-quill; in place of paper I made use of beautifully smooth maize leaves.”
“Just as the Egyptians used papyrus?”
“Yes, and if papyrus was good enough for the daughters of the Pharaohs, why shouldn’t maize-membranes be good enough for me? I wrote and told her everything that had happened. I entirely justified my proceedings. If there was but one drop of justice in her composition she would be bound to acknowledge that my line of action was as clear as the day. Muki had made off with the herdsman’s wife; I, following the lex talionis— an eye for eye — had made off with Gyuricza. He had brought an action against me; Gyuricza would bring an action against his own wife. The pair of us stood on exactly the same legal footing. If the two divorces were carried out, I meant to make the man of my choice my lawful husband, and would become in name what I already was in fact, the wife of Peter Gyuricza. I referred to you also in my letter.”
“Yes. I argued that there was now no difference between peasants and gentlemen, and pointed out that since the 15th March you had omitted the privileged ‘y’43 from the end of your name, and had substituted for it a simple ‘i,’ and you were a ‘glorious patriot,’ as every one knew. Nobody therefore had any reason to be ashamed of Peter Gyuricza. Besides, I did not mean that he should remain a herdsman any longer; but as soon as my mother handed over to me my patrimony (so much of it I mean as Muki had not already squandered away), I meant to purchase a farm, and Gyuricza and I would settle down upon it as independent proprietors.”
43 The “y” at the end of Hungarian personal names has much the same value as the French de or the German von— TR.]
The matter now really began to amuse me. I could imagine to myself the Hogarthian group when the trio of ladies began spelling out syllable by syllable the letter that had been written on a maize-leaf.
“Well! and what answer did you get?”
“The answer you may easily have anticipated. My mother replied that she repudiated me entirely, that I should not get a farthing from her, and that I was never again to presume to show my face in a family which I had so utterly disgraced.”
“And did Peter know all about this?”
“I was obliged to tell him, for my mother had nearly frightened to death the bearer of my letter, our little serving maid. She told her that if she ever dared to come to town again she would have her seized and tied to the pillory (though there wasn’t one), and well flogged into the bargain; so that neither by cuffs nor entreaties was the wench to be persuaded to go to town again. She said as much to Peter. She said she would rather lose her place. And yet she ought to have gone every market-day to the town with cheese and butter, for these wares were Peter’s chief means of livelihood. What was I to do now? I did this. I resolved to take the butter and cheese to market myself.”
“You? But how?”
“Not in a glass carriage, you may be sure. The market is a good two hours’ journey from our hut, and the direction is marked by the church tower. The peasant women, when they pack with wares the baskets which they put on their heads, make, first of all, a sort of wreath of rags, which they place below the baskets to lighten the pressure and maintain the equilibrium.”
“And you did the same?”
“Naturally! It is no greater hardship for me, surely, than for the other poor girls who do it. And remember, besides, that this marketing is just as great an amusement to the peasant women as a promenade concert is to fine ladies. There was only one little nuisance connected with it. Just at this time all the irrigation waters had overflowed, and all the fields and meadows between our hut and the market town were turned into a lake, through which we had to wade.”
“What! you waded through the flooded fields?”
“Oh, the water did not really come above my knees. It was only here and there, by the side of the streams, that we had to truss up our petticoats pretty high, and then we took off our boots and carried them tied on to the handles of our baskets. That is how all the women go.”
“And you picked your way along like that too?”
“Again and again! I might, indeed, have gone along by the dykes, but then I should have had to turn into the village and make a circuit of four miles with the mud up to my knees. Along the even marshes, on the other hand, it is pleasant going, the soft soil does not hurt your heels, and there are no leeches.”
“But did no one see you?”
“What did I care? I quite enjoyed my aquatic promenade. It was every bit as good as bathing at Trouville, and there I had by no means so ample a toilet. On arriving in town, I at once readjusted my clothes, put on my boots, and went to sell butter and cheese right in front of my mother’s house. It was really a capital position that I chose; a corner-house between two thoroughfares, opening out upon the market-place.”
“And nobody recognised you?”
“Why shouldn’t they? Every one recognised me, even the money-collector who hires out the standing-rooms. He allowed me my standing-room gratis, because I ‘belonged to the place.’ I was surrounded by quite a crowd of my former cavaliers, who bought up all my butter, and I sold my cheese by the ounce, at fancy prices; there was quite a run upon it. Never had Peter Gyuricza seen so much money as I brought home to him from the sale of his butter and cheese.”
“And your worthy mother?”
“Alas! all that the poor thing could do was to pull down all the blinds in broad daylight. I, however, purchased with the proceeds of the butter and cheese as much salt and tobacco as we required, packed them all up in the basket, and, placing it on my head, returned through the floods the same way by which I came.”
“And did you do this often?”
“Every market day. Sometimes it was rainy. Then the peasant woman is wont to throw her upper garment over her head, that is her umbrella. I had to get accustomed to that too. Once, a couple of my former young gentlemen acquaintances took it into their heads to play me a practical joke. They paddled a canoe out of the Danube into the submerged plain, and when I began my wading tour they paddled after me. That did me no harm, but it turned out badly for them, for the peasant girls who went with me charged upon them like the host of Sisera, wrested the paddles from their hands, and left them rocking helplessly to and fro in the midst of the waters.”
“But hasn’t the water all dried up now?” I asked impatiently.
“Oh, how he snaps at me! Of course! Now we can go dry-shod. Only when we come to a ditch do we take off our shoes. But, dear heart! how I do go on gabbling without ever coming to the point. I must explain why I have come all the way hither to you, my dear Mr. Advocate. As I will not appear before the priest to further the reconciliation project, and my husband (my first, I mean) will do so neither, I must, of course, appear before the judge! and as, moreover, my mother must be admonished to hand over my little property, if you would take my case up for me I should be exceedingly obliged to you.”
I told her that I did not practise as an advocate, and that I had no experience whatever of divorce proceedings, not having been taught the subject in the schools.
Then she began to speak in a very solemn voice. She said she had never expected me to take up her case, but had sought me out because she had been informed that the advocates with whom I had served my articles were very eminent practitioners; she would like to entrust her double suit to them. As, however, she feared that they would neither receive her nor believe her if she appeared before them in her present costume, she earnestly begged that I would give her a letter of introduction to the firm of Molnár & Vérchovszky for friendship’s sake — or for any other price.
“Well, I can do that for you — for nothing.”
To write this letter I had to sit down at my writing-table.
“May I peep and see what you write about me?”
“If you like.”
I could not take offence at her curiosity.
“I’ll help you!” said she, with naïve archness, and went and stood behind my back.
I must say that she had a very odd notion of helping me. She leant right over me so that I could feel her burning breath on my face, and the throbbing of her heart against my shoulder. I spoiled the first sheet of paper by writing last year’s date at the top of it. Then I could not call to mind the name of my client, and I thought one thing and wrote another. Add to that that I made a mess of the simplest sentences, and wrote in a style worthy of a pedantic grammarian. Finally I got hopelessly involved in the maze of a long-winded phrase which I began but could not finish. That’s what happens to a man when he has to listen to the beating of two hearts!
It was on this self-same table that the picture stood which I have already mentioned. I had no time to conceal it in my drawer. And why should I have tried to hide it? Was I bound to make a mystery of it before her?
Right opposite to my writing-table was a mirror on the wall. On one occasion, when I was pursuing an elusive word, I raised my head from my writing-desk and saw in the mirror the figure of the woman who was standing behind my back. Oh, what a face was that! She was not looking into my letter, but at the portrait. The eyes were turned sideways, so that the upper parts of the whites were visible; the lips were drawn aside, and the teeth clenched.
I saw this from the mirror. And this mirror, too had the property of making things look green. Viewed in this magic light, the fair lady standing behind me appeared like the Iblis of the Thousand-and-one Nights, who sucks the blood of her lovers and leads the dances of the dead.
I finished the letter to my old chiefs.
Then I dried it with a piece of blotting-paper. Sand I have always hated. I also felt, in this respect, like Stephen Szechenyi,44 who, whenever he received a sanded-letter, used to give it first of all to his lackey to be taken out in the hall and dusted. Before enclosing the letter, however, I turned round and handed it to her.
44 Count Stephen Szechenyi, “the greatest of the Magyars,” was born in 1791. He brilliantly distinguished himself at the battle of Leipsic, and at Tolentino, in 1815, at the head of his Hussars, annihilated Murat’s cavalry. After the war, he devoted himself to domestic politics with a tact, courage, and noble liberality which speedily made him the most popular man in Hungary. The Hungarian Academy and the Hungarian National Theatre were founded at his initiative and mainly at his expense. The breach with Austria in 1848 so preyed upon his mind that he went mad, and was confined in an asylum, where he destroyed himself in 1860. — TR.]
“Would you read it, please?”
The menacing spectre was no longer there. Iblis had changed into a smiling young bride.
“And how do you know that I haven’t read the letter?” she asked, in her astonishment.
“My little finger whispered it to me!”
At this she burst out laughing, and pushed the letter away.
“I don’t mean to read it! I know that you have written no end of good things about me.”
I folded up my letter, sealed it and wrote the address —“Joseph Molnár and Alexander Vérchovszky, Advocates.” Then I handed it to her.
Still she kept standing there in front of my writing-table, twirling the letter round and round in her hands, and gazing continually at the portrait. Her face had become quite solemn. In her deeply downcast eyes there was a suspicious brightness testifying to restrained tear-drops.
She heaved a deep sigh.
“But this is mere folly!” She thrust my letter beneath her bodice, and in a voice of real warmth and sincerity, she stammered: “I thank you most kindly.” Then she added, in a voice half grave, half gay: “But come now! You won’t write my story in the newspapers, will you?”
“I assure you it is not my practice.”
“And you won’t put my stupid story into a novel or a romance, eh? At least not while I’m alive?”
“Never! Put your mind at rest on that point.”
“No; don’t say never. Let it be only as long as I’m alive. But when I die, wherever it may be, you shall receive a letter from me, which I will write to you at my last hour, authorizing you to write all that you know of me.”
“My dear friend, death is written much more plainly on my brow than on yours.”
She shuddered. Twice she shuddered. Then she threw her basket over her arm, and took her leave. I would have escorted her to the door of the ante-chamber, but she held me back.
“Stay where you are. I do not wish any one to see you paying attention to a country wench.”
When I was by myself again and thinking over the whole scene, it seemed to me as if a golden thrush were piping derisively in my ear again —
“Foolish fellow! Foolish fellow!”
For the second time I had let slip the opportunity of pilfering Paradise, conceded to me by a special and peculiar favour of the gods. I candidly confess that I am no saint. . . . I am a true son of Adam, of real flesh and blood. No vow binds me to an ascetic life. Let temptation come to me again in the shape of that pretty woman today and she shall see what I am made of! . . . All day long these feverish imaginings haunted me. In the drawer of my writing-table was the portrait which I once wrested in knightly tourney from her bridegroom, and which she herself had given me to put to rights. I went again and again to my writing-table in order to take out that portrait and have another look at it. But that other portrait lay there on my table and would not allow it. It was much better to leave the house. I occupied the whole day in strolling about the town. Perhaps I may meet her somewhere in the street.
Late in the evening I returned home.
I was alone. My lackey only came to me in the morning.
I had scarcely lighted my lamp when I heard a knocking at my door. I certainly had forgotten to shut the door of my ante-chamber, and so my visitor had managed to penetrate so far. Who could it be at such a late hour? “Come in!”
The blood flew to my head when the door opened.
She had come back!
Then she was here again!
She did not come in, however, but stood with the door-latch in her hand, as if she were afraid of me.
“It is not nice of me, I know,” she stammered, with a faltering voice, “to come here so late. I have been here three times, but you were out. I must tell you what I’ve heard. Don’t be angry.”
I begged her to come in, and took her by the hand. My heart beat feverishly.
“The lawyers received me very well. They were both at home. They took up my case and assured me that it was bound to result in my favour, and that they would pay the preliminary expenses. They behaved like gentlemen. Then the conversation turned upon you. They asked how long we had been acquainted. I told them as much as was necessary, and wound up by saying that you were the one thoroughly disinterested friend that I possessed. Then one of the advocates, the tall dry one I mean, said, with perfect good-nature: ‘Well, if you are kindly disposed towards our young friend, just tell him that the path along which he is now rushing so impetuously leads straight to the gallows,’ whereupon the blonde, ruddy-faced man added, ‘or else to suicide.’ I felt I must tell you that.”
And with these words she stepped back from the door.
An icy shudder would have run down the shoulders of any other man at these words, but the message regularly set me on fire. It was my pet idea they wanted me to give up, the idea which I adored even more than my lady-love, the idea of my youth — the idea of liberty. If any one offends my lady-love I will shed his blood, but let not even my lady-love interfere with my principles, as for them I am ready to pour out my own blood to the last drop.
“Be it so!” I cried passionately; “that has nothing to do with you;” and I shut the door in her face. Every fibre of my body quivered with rage.
They threaten me with the gallows, or with the suicidal dagger of a Cato! I fear them not.
My poor chiefs! Half a year later they were rushing along the self-same path, at the end of which so many monsters were lurking. I only lost my hair in the hands of these monsters, but they lost their heads. Their own prophecy was fulfilled on them both.
From that day forth I was very wrath with the lady with the eyes like the sea.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10