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Baroness Emmuska Orczy
A BRIDE OF THE PLAINS
First published in 1915
Copyright © 2018 Classica Libris
To the Memory of
What would you have said now — O patriot and selfless hero — had you lived to see the country which you loved so well, for whose liberty and national dignity you fought with such unswerving devotion — what would you say, could you see her now — tied to Austria’s chariot wheel, the catspaw and the tool of that Teutonic race which you abhorred? Thank God you were spared the sight which surely would have broken your heart! You never lived to see your country free. Alas! no man for many generations to come will see that now. The Magyar peasant lad — upon the vast, mysterious plains of his native soil — will alone continue to dream of national liberty, of religious and political freedom, and vaguely hope that some day another Louis Kossuth will arise again and restore to him and to his race that sense of dignity, of justice and of right which the Teuton has striven for centuries to crush.
“God bless them all! they are good lads.”
It was now close on eight o’clock and more than two hours ago since first the dawn broke over that low-lying horizon line which seems so far away, and tinged the vast immensity of the plain first with grey and then with mauve and pale-toned emerald, with rose and carmine and crimson and blood-red, until the sun — triumphant and glorious at last — woke the sunflowers from their sleep, gilded every tiny blade of grass and every sprig of rosemary, and caused every head of stately maize to quiver with delight at the warmth of his kiss.
The plain stretched its limitless expanse as far as human eye can reach — a sea of tall straight stems, with waves of brilliant green and plume-crowned crests shimmering like foam in the sunlight.
As far as human eye can see! — and further, much further still! — the sea of maize, countless upright stems, hundreds of thousands of emerald green sheaths crowned with flaxen tendrils like a maiden’s hair; down on the ground — a carpet for the feet of the majestic corn — hundreds and thousands of orange-coloured pumpkins turning their huge shiny carcases to the ripening rays of the sun, and all around in fantastic lines, rows of tall sunflowers, a blaze of amber, with thick velvety hearts laden with seed.
And all of it stretching out apparently to infinity beyond that horizon line which is still hidden by a silvery haze, impalpable womb that cradles the life-giving heat.
Stately stems of maize — countless as the pebbles on a beach, as the specks of foam upon the crest of a wave, limitless as the sea and like the sea mutable, ever-changing, restless — bending to every breath of the summer breeze, full of strange, sweet sounds, of moanings and of sighs, as the emerald sheaths tremble in the wind, or down below the bright yellow carcases of the pumpkins crack and shiver in the growing heat.
An ocean of tall maize and gaily-coloured pumpkins as far as the eye can reach, and long, dividing lines of amber-coloured sunflowers, vivid and riotous, flaunting their crude colouring in the glowing sunlight.
Here and there the dull, dark green of hemp breaks the unvarying stretches of maize, and far away there is a tanya (cottage) with a group of stunted acacias near it, and a well whose tall, gaunt arm stretches weirdly up to the sky, whilst to the south the sluggish Maros winds its slow course lazily toward the parent stream.
An ocean of maize and of pumpkins and of sunflowers, with here and there the tall, crested stems of hemp, and above it the sky — blue and already glowing through the filmy mist which every minute grows more ethereal and more impalpable as veil upon veil of heat-holding vapours are drawn from before its face.
A beautiful morning in mid-September, and yet in all this vast immensity of fertile land and ripening fruit there is no sign of human toil, no sound of beast or creaking waggon, no sign of human life around that distant tanya.
The tiny lizard in his comfortable position on the summit of a gigantic pumpkin can continue his matutinal sleep in peace; the stork can continue undisturbed his preparations for his impending long voyage over seas. Man has not yet thought to break by travail or by song the peaceful silence of the plain.
And yet the village lies not very far away, close to the Maros; the small, low, hemp-thatched houses scarcely peep above the sea of tall-stemmed maize, only the white-washed tower of the church with its red-painted roof stands out clear and abrupt against the sky.
And now the sharp, cracked sound of the Elevation bell breaks the silence of the summer’s morning. The good Pater Bonifacius is saying Mass; he, at any rate, is astir and busy with his day’s work and obligations. Surely it is strange that at so late an hour in mid-September, with the maize waiting to be gathered in, the population of Marosfalva should still be absent from the fields.
Hej! But stranger, what would you! Such a day is this fourteenth of September.
What? You did not know it? The fourteenth of September, the ugliest, blackest, most God-forsaken day in the whole year!
You did not know? You cannot guess? Then what kind of a stranger are you if you do not know that on this hideous fourteenth of September all the finest lads of Marosfalva and the villages around are taken away by the abominable government? Away for three years to be made into soldiers, to drill and to march, to carry guns and bayonets, to obey words of command that they don’t understand, to be packed off from place to place — from Arad to Bistricz, from Kecskemét to Nagyvárad, aye? and as far as Bosnia too — wherever that may be!
Yes, kind Sir! the lads of Marosfalva and of Fekete, of Kender and of Görcz, are taken away just like that, in batches every year, packed into one of those detestable railways like so many heads of cattle and separated from their mothers, their sisters, their sweethearts, all because a hateful government for which the people of Marosfalva do not care one brass fillér, has so decreed it.
Mind you, it is the same in all the other villages, and in every town in Hungary — so at least we have been given to understand — but we have nothing to do with other villages or with the towns: they do just as the good God wills them to do. It is our lads — the lads of Marosfalva and Kender and Fekete and Görcz — who have to be packed off in train-loads today and taken away from us for three years.
Three years! Why, the lad is a mere child when he goes — one-and-twenty on his last birthday, bless him! — still wanting a mother’s care of his stomach and his clothes, and a father’s heavy stick across his back from time to time to keep him from drink and too much love-making.
Three years! When he comes back he is a man, has notions of his own, has seen the world and cares no more about his native village and the narrow cottage where he used to run in and out bare-footed, bare-chested, bare-headed and comfortably dirty from head to foot.
Three years! And what are the chances that he come back at all? Bosnia? Where in the world is that? And if you are a soldier, why then you go to war, you get shot at, killed may be, or at any rate maimed. Three years! You may never come back! And when you do you are not the same youngster whom your mother kissed, your father whacked, and your sweetheart wept over.
Three years! Nay, but ’tis a lifetime. Mother is old, she may never see her son again. Girls are vain and fickle, they will turn their thoughts in other directions — there are the men who have done their military service, who have paid their toll to the abominable government up at Budapest and who are therefore free to court and free to marry.
Aye! Aye! That’s how it is. They must go through with it, though they hate it all — every moment of it. They hate to be packed into railway carriages like so many dried heads of maize in a barn, they hate to wear the heavy cloth clothes, the hard boots, the leather pouches and belts. My God, how they hate it!
And the rude alien sergeant, with his “Vorwärts!” and “Marsch!” and “Rechts” and “Links” — I ask you in the name of the Holy Virgin what kind of gibberish is that?
But they must all go! — all those, at least, who are whole and sound in body. Bless them! They are sound enough when they go! It is when they come back!…
Yes! They must all go, those who are sound in eyes and wind and limb, and it is very difficult to cheat the commission who come to take our lads away. There was Benkó, for instance; he starved himself for three months this summer, hoping to reduce his chest measurements by a few needful centimètres; but it was no use. The doctor who examined him said that with regular food and plenty of exercise he would soon put on more flesh, and he would get both for the next three years. And János — you remember? — he chopped off one of his toes — thinking that would get him off those hated three years of service; but it seems there is a new decree by which the lads need not be possessed of all ten toes in order to serve the hateful government.
No, no! It is no use trying to get out of it. They measure you, and bang your chest and your back, they look at your eyes and make you open your mouth to look at your teeth, but anyhow they take you away for three years.
They make you swear that you will faithfully serve your country and your King during that time, that you will obey your superiors, and follow your leader wherever he may command, over land and by water. By water! I ask you! When there was Albert and Jenö who could not bear even the sight of water; they would not have gone in a boat on the Maros if you had offered them a gold piece each! How could they swear that they would follow some fool of a German officer on water?
They could not swear that. They knew they could not do it. But they were clapped in prison like common malefactors and treated like brigands and thieves until they did swear. And after that — well! they had once to cross the Theiss in a ferry-boat — they were made to do it!
Oh, no! Nothing happened to them then, but Albert came back after his three years’ service, with two of his front teeth gone, and we all know that Jenö now is little better than an idiot.
So now you know, stranger, why we at Marosfalva call the fourteenth day of September the very blackest in the whole calendar, and why at eight o’clock in the morning nobody is at work in the fields.
For the fourteenth day being such a black one, we must all make the most of the few hours that come before it. At nine o’clock of that miserable morning the packing of our lads into the train will commence, but until then they are making merry, bless them! They are true Hungarians, you know! They will dance, and they will sing, they will listen to gipsy music and kiss the girls so long as there is breath in their body, so long as they are free to do it.
At nine o’clock today they cease to be free men, they are under the orders of corporals and sergeants and officers who will command them to go “Vorwärts” and “Rechts” and “Links” and all that God-forsaken gibberish, and put them in irons and on bread and water if they do not obey. But yesterday, on the thirteenth of September that is, they were still free to do as they liked: they could dance and sing and get drunk as much as they chose.
So the big barn that belongs to Ignácz Goldstein, the Jew, is thrown open for a night’s dancing and music and jollification. At five o’clock in the afternoon the gipsies tuned up; there was a supper which lasted many hours, after which the dancing began. The first csárdás was struck up at eight o’clock last evening, the last one is being danced now at eight o’clock in the morning, while the whole plain lies in silence under the shimmering sky, and while Pater Bonifácius reads his mass all alone in the little church, and prays fervently for the lads who are going away today for three years: away from his care and his tender, paternal attention, away from their homes, their weeping mothers and sorrowing sweethearts.
God bless them all! They are good lads, but weak, impulsive, easily led toward good or evil. They are dancing now, when they should be praying, but God bless them all! They are good lads!
“Money won’t buy everything.”
Inside the barn the guttering candles were burning low. No one thought of blowing them out, so they were just left to smoke and to smoulder, and to help render the atmosphere even more stifling than it otherwise would have been.
The heat has become almost unbearable — unbearable, that is, to anyone not wholly intent on pleasure to the exclusion of every other sensation, every other consciousness. The barn built of huge pine logs, straw-thatched and raftered, is filled to overflowing with people — men, women, even children — all bent upon one great, all-absorbing object — that object, forgetfulness.
The indifferent, the stolid, may call it what he will, but it is the common wish to forget that has brought all these people — young and old — together in Ignácz Goldstein’s barn this night — the desire to forget that hideous, fateful fourteenth of September which comes with such heartrending regularity year after year — the desire to forget that the lads, the flower of the neighbouring villages, are going away today… for three years? — nay! very likely for ever! — three years! and all packed up like cattle in a railway truck! and put under the orders of some brutal sergeant who is not Hungarian, and can only say “Vorwärts!” or “Marsch!” and is backed in his arbitrary commands by the whole weight of government, King and country.
For three years! — and there is always war going on somewhere — and that awful Bosnia! wherever it may be — lads from Hungarian villages go there sound in body and in limb and come back bent with ague, halt, lame or blind.
Three years! More like for ever!
And therefore the whole population of Marosfalva and of the villages round spends its last happy four-and-twenty hours in trying to forget that nine o’clock of the fourteenth day of September is approaching with sure and giant strides; everyone has a wish to forget; the parents and grandparents, the sisters, the sweethearts, the lads themselves! The future is so hideous, let the joy of the present kill all thoughts of those coming three years.
Marosfalva is the rallying-point, where this final annual jollification takes place. They all come over on the thirteenth from Fekete and Görcz, and Kender, in order to dance and to sing at Marosfalva in the barn which belongs to Ignácz Goldstein the Jew. Marosfalva boasts of a railway station and it is from here that at nine o’clock in the morning the lads will be entrained; so all day on the thirteenth there has been a pilgrimage along the cross-roads from the outlying villages and hamlets round Marosfalva — a stream of men and women and young children all determined to forget for a few hours the coming separation of the morrow; by five o’clock in the afternoon all those had assembled who had meant to come and dancing in the barn had begun.
Ignácz Goldstein’s barn has always been the setting in which the final drama of the happy year is acted. After that night spent there in dancing and music and merry-making, down goes the curtain on the comedy of life and the tragedy of tears begins.
Since five o’clock in the afternoon the young people have been dancing — waltzing, polkaing, dancing the csárdás — mostly the csárdás, the dance of the nation, of the people, the most exhilarating, most entrancing, most voluptuous dance that feet of man have ever trod. The girls and lads are indefatigable, the slow and languorous Lassu (slow movement) alternates with the mad, merry csárdás, they twirl and twist, advance, retreat, separate and reunite in a mad, intoxicating whirl. Small booted feet stamp on the rough wooden floor, sending up clouds of dust. What matter if the air becomes more and more stifling? There are tears and sighs to be stifled too.
“Ho, there, czigány! Play up! Faster! Faster! ’Tis not a funeral dirge you are playing.”
The gipsy musicians, hot and perspiring, have blown and scraped and banged for fifteen solid hours; no one would ever think of suggesting that a gipsy needed rest; the clarinetist, it is true, rolled off his seat at one time, and had to be well shaken ere he could blow again, but the leader — as good a leader, mind you, as could be found in the kingdom — had only paused when the dancers were exhausted, or when bite and sup were placed before him. There they were, perched up on a rough platform made up of packing-cases borrowed from the station-master; the czimbalom player in the centre, his fat, brown hands wield the tiny clappers with unerring precision, up and down the strings, with that soft, lingering tone which partakes of the clavecins and the harp alike. At the back the double-bass, lean and dark, with jet-black eyes that stare stolidly at his leader.
There is a second fiddle, and the fat clarinetist and, of course, the leader — he whose match could not be found in the kingdom. He stands on the very edge of the rough platform, his fiddle under his chin, and he stoops well forward, so that his hands and instrument almost touch the foremost of the dancing pairs.
They — the dancers — crowd closely round the gipsy band, for so must the csárdás be danced, as near the musicians as possible, as close together as the wide, sweeping petticoats of the girls will allow.
Such petticoats! One on the top of the other, ten or a dozen or more, and all of different colour: the girls are proud of these petticoats — the number of them is a sign of prosperity; and now as they dance and swing from the hips these petticoats fly out, caught by the currents of air until they look like gargantuan showers of vividly-coloured petals shaken by giant hands.
Above the petticoats the girls’ waists look slim in the dark, tight-fitting corslet, above which again rises the rich, olive-tinted breast and throat; full white sleeves of linen crown the bare, ruddy arms, and ribbons of national colours — red, white and green — float from the shoulders and the waist.
The smooth, thick hair is closely plaited, from the crown of the head in two long, tight plaits; it is drawn rigidly away from the forehead, giving that quaint, hard finish to the round, merry face which is so characteristic of the Asiatic ancestry.
Each one of them a little picture which seems to have stepped straight out of a Velasquez canvas, the bell-shaped skirt, the stiff corslet, the straight, tight hair and round eyes full of vitality.
The men wear their linen shirt and full trousers with fringed, embroidered ends, the leather waistcoat and broad belt covered with metal bosses and wrought with bright-coloured woollen threads. They get very excited in the mazes of the dance, they shout to the gipsies to play faster and ever faster; each holds his partner tightly round the slim waist and swings her round and round, till she stumbles, giddy and almost faint in his arms.
And round the dancers in a semicircle the spectators stand in a dense crowd — the older folk and the girls who have not secured partners — they watch and watch, indefatigable like the dancers, untiring like the musicians. And behind this semicircle, in the dark corners of the barn, the children foot it too, with the same ardour, the same excitement as their elders.
The last csárdás of this memorable night! It is eight o’clock now, and through the apertures in the log wall the brilliant light of this late summer’s morning enters triumphant and crude.
Andor is dancing with Elsa — pretty, fair-haired Elsa, the daughter of old Kapus Benkó, an old reprobate, if ever there was one. Such a handsome couple they look. Is it not a shame that Andor must go today — for three years, perhaps for ever?
In Hungary the surname precedes the Christian name.
The tears that have struggled up to Elsa’s tender blue eyes, despite her will to keep them back, add to the charm of her engaging personality, they help to soften the somewhat serious expression of her young face. Her cheeks are glowing with the excitement of the dance, her graceful figure bends to the pressure of Andor’s arm around her waist.
Ten or a dozen cotton petticoats are tied round that slim waist of hers, no two of a like colour, and as she twists and twirls in Andor’s arms the petticoats fly out, till she looks like a huge flower of many hues with superposed corollas, blue, green, pink and yellow, beneath which her small feet shod in boots of brilliant leather look like two crimson stamens.
The tight-fitting corslet bodice and the full, white sleeves of the shift make her figure appear peculiarly slim and girlish, and her bare throat and shoulders are smooth and warmly tinted like some luscious fruit.
No wonder that Andor feels this dance, this movement, the music, the girl’s sweet, quick breath, going to his head like wine. Elsa was always pretty, always dainty and gentle, but now she is excited, tearful at the coming parting, and by all the saints a more exquisite woman never came out of Paradise!
The semicircle of spectators composed of older folk draws closer round the dancers, but the other couples remain comparatively unheeded. It is Elsa and Andor whom everyone is watching.
He is tall and broad-shouldered, with the supple limbs of a young stag, and the mad, irresponsible movements of a colt. His dark eyes shine like two stars out of his sun-burnt face; his muscular arms encircle Elsa’s fine waist with a grip that is almost masterful. The wide sleeves of his linen shirt flutter above his shoulders till they look like wings and he like some messenger of the gods come to carry this exquisite prey off from the earth.
“What a well-matched couple!” murmur the older women as they watch.
“Elsa will be the beauty of the village within the next year, mark what I say!” added a kindly old soul, turning to her neighbour — a slatternly, ill-kempt, middle-aged woman, who was casting looks on Andor and Elsa that were none too kind.
“Hm!” retorted the latter, with sour mien, “then ’tis as well that that good-for-nothing will be safely out of the way.”
“I would not call Andor good-for-nothing, Irma néni,” said one of the men who stood close by, “he has not had much chance to do anything for himself yet…”
Aunt Irma — the words aunt (néni) and uncle (bácsi) are used indiscriminately in Hungary when addressing elderly people, and do not necessarily imply any relationship.
“And he never will,” snapped the woman, with a click of her thin jaws, “I know the sort — always going to do wonderful things in a future which never comes. Well! at any rate while he is a soldier they will teach him that he is no better than other lads that come from the same village, and not even as good, seeing that he has never any money in his wallet.”
“Andor will be rich some day,” suggested the kindly old soul who had first spoken, “don’t you forget it, Irma néni.”
“I have no special wish to remember it, my good Kati,” retorted Irma dryly.
“I thought,” murmured the other, “seeing that Andor has really courted Elsa this summer that… perhaps…”
“My daughter has plenty of admirers,” said Irma, in her bitter-toned, snappish way, “and has no reason to wait for one who only may be rich some day.”
“Bah! Lakatos Pál cannot live for ever. Andor will have every fillér of his money when he dies, and Pál will cut up very well.”
“Lakatos Pál is a youngish man — not fifty, I imagine,” concluded Irma with a sneer. “He may live another thirty years, and Elsa would be an old woman herself by then.”
The other woman said nothing more after that. It was no use arguing the point. Irma was the wife of old Kapus — both of them as shiftless, thriftless, ill-conditioned a pair as ever stole the daylight from God in order to waste it in idleness. How they came to be blessed with such a pretty, winning daughter as Elsa an all too-indulgent God only knew.
What, however, was well known throughout the village was that as Kapus and his wife never had a crown to bless themselves with, and had never saved enough to earn a rest for themselves in their old age, they had long ago determined that their daughter should be the means of bringing prosperity to them as soon as she was old enough for the marriage-market.
Elsa was beautiful! Thank the good God for that! Kapus had never saved enough to give her a marriage-portion either, and had she been ugly, or only moderately pretty, it would have been practically impossible to find a husband for her. But if she became the beauty of Marosfalva — as indeed she was already — there would be plenty of rich men who would be willing to waive the question of the marriage-portion for the sake of the glory of having captured the loveliest matrimonial prize in the whole countryside.
“Leave Irma néni alone, mother,” said the man who had first taken up the cudgels in favour of Andor, “we all know that she has very ambitious views for Elsa. Please God she may not be disappointed.”
From more than one group of spectators came similar or other comments on pretty Elsa and her partner. The general consensus of opinion seemed to be that it was as well Andor was going away for three years. Old Kapus and his wife would never allow their daughter to marry a man with pockets as empty as their own, and it was no use waiting for dead men’s shoes. Lakatos Pál, the rich uncle, from whom Andor was bound to inherit some day, was little past the prime of life. Until he died how would Andor and a penniless wife contrive to live? For Lakatos Pál was a miser and hoarded his money — moreover, he was a confirmed bachelor and woman-hater; he would do nothing for Andor if the young man chose to marry.
Ah, well! it was a pity! for a better-looking, better-matched pair could not be found in the whole county of Arad.
“Lucky for you, Béla, that Andor goes off today for three years,” said a tall, handsome girl to her neighbour, “you would not have had much chance with Elsa otherwise.”
The man beside her made no immediate reply; he was standing with legs wide apart, his hands buried in the pockets of his trousers. At the girl’s words, which were accompanied by a provocative glance from her large, dark eyes, he merely shrugged his wide shoulders, and jingled some money in his pockets.
The girl laughed.
“Money won’t buy everything, you know, my good Béla,” she said.
“It will buy most things,” he retorted.
“The consent of Irma néni, for instance,” she suggested.
“And a girl’s willingness to exchange the squalor of a mud hut for comfort, luxury, civilization.”
Unlike most of the young men here tonight, who wore the characteristic costume of the countryside — full, white linen shirt and trousers, broad leather belt, embossed and embroidered and high leather boots, Béla was dressed in a town suit of dark-coloured cloth, cut by a provincial tailor from Arad. He was short of stature, though broad-shouldered and firmly knit, but his face was singularly ugly, owing to the terrible misfortune which had befallen him when he lost his left eye. The scar and hollow which were now where the eye had once been gave the whole face a sinister expression, which was further accentuated by the irregular line of the eyebrows and the sneer which habitually hovered round the full, hard lips.
Béla was not good to look on; and this is a serious defect in a young man in Hungary, but he was well endowed with other attributes which made him very attractive to the girls. He had a fine and lucrative position, seeing that he was his Lordship’s bailiff, and had an excellent salary, a good house and piece of land of his own, as well as the means of adding considerably to his income, since his lordship left him to conclude many a bargain over corn and plums, and horses and pigs. Erös Béla was rich and influential. He lived in a stone-built house, which had a garden round it, and at least five rooms inside, with a separate kitchen and a separate living-room, therefore he was a very eligible young man and one greatly favoured by mothers of penniless girls; nor did the latter look askance on Béla despite the fact that he had only one eye and that never a pleasant word escaped his lips.
Even now he was looking on at the dancing with a heavy scowl upon his face. The girl near him — she with the dark, Oriental eyes and the thin, hooked nose, Klara Goldstein the Jewess — gave him a nudge with her brown, pointed elbow.
“I wouldn’t let Andor see the temper you are in, my friend,” she said, with a sarcastic little laugh, “we don’t want any broken bones before the train goes off this morning.”
“There will be broken bones if he does not look out,” muttered the other between his teeth, as he drew a tightly clenched fist from his pocket.
“Bah! why should you care?” retorted Klara, who seemed to take an impish delight in teasing the young man, “you are not in love with Elsa, are you?”
“What is it to you?” growled Béla surlily.
“Nothing,” she replied, “only that we have always been friends, you and I — eh, Béla?”
And she turned her large, lustrous eyes upon him, peering at him through her long black lashes. She was a handsome girl, of course, and she knew it — knew how to use her eyes, and make the men forget that she was only a Jewess, a thing to be played with but despised — no better than a gipsy wench, not for a Hungarian peasant to look upon as an equal, to think of as a possible mate.
Béla, whose blood was hot in him, what with the wine which he had drunk and the jealous temper which was raging in his brain, was nevertheless sober enough not to meet the languorous glances which the handsome Jewess bestowed so freely upon him.
“We are still friends — are we not, Béla?” she reiterated slowly.
“Of course — why not?” he grunted, “what has our friendship to do with Andor and Elsa?”
“Only this: that I don’t like to see a friend of mine make a fool of himself over a girl who does not care one hairpin for him.”
Béla smothered a curse.
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“Everyone knows that Elsa is over head and ears in love with Andor, and just won’t look at anyone else.”
“Oho!” he sneered, “everyone knows that, do they? Well! you can tell that busy-body everyone from me that before the year is out Kapus Elsa will be tokened to me, and that when Andor comes back from having marched and drilled and paced the barrack-yard he will find that Kapus Elsa is Kapus no longer, but Erös, the wife of Erös Béla, the mother of his first-born. To this I have made up my mind, and when I make up my mind to anything, neither God nor the devil dares to stand in my way.”
“Hush! hush! in Heaven’s name,” she protested quickly, “the neighbours will hear you.”
He shrugged his shoulders, and murmured something very uncomplimentary anent the ultimate destination of those neighbours.
Some of them certainly had heard what he said, for he had not been at pains to lower his voice. His riches and his position had made him something of an oracle in Marosfalva, and he held all the peasantry in such contempt that he cared little what everyone thought of him. He therefore remained indifferent and sulky now whilst many glances of good-humoured mockery were levelled upon him.
No one, of course, thought any the worse of Erös Béla for desiring the beauty of the village for himself — he was rich and could marry whom he pleased, and that he should loudly and openly proclaim his determination to possess himself of the beautiful prize was only in accordance with the impulsive, hot-headed, somewhat bombastic temperament of the Magyars themselves.
Fortunately those chiefly concerned in Erös Béla’s loudly spoken determination had heard nothing of the colloquy between him and the Jewess. The wild, loud music of the csárdás, their own gyrations and excitement, shut them out entirely from their surroundings.
Their stamping, tripping, twirling feet had carried them into another world altogether; Ignácz Goldstein’s barn had become a fairy bower, they themselves were spirits living in that realm of bliss; there was no longer any impending separation, no military service, no blank and desolate three years! Andor, his arm tightly clasped round Elsa’s waist, his head bowed till his lips touched her bare shoulder, contrived to whisper magic words in her ear.
Magic words? — simple, commonplace words, spoken by myriads of men before and since into myriads of willing ears, in every tongue this earth hath ever known. But to Elsa it seemed as if the Magyar tongue had never before sounded so exquisite! To her the words were magic because they wrought a miracle in her. She had been a girl — a child ere those words were spoken. She liked Andor, she liked her father and her mother, little Emma over the way, Mari néni, who was always kind. She had loved them all, been pleased when she saw them, glad to give them an affectionate kiss.
But now, since that last csárdás had begun, a strange and mysterious current had gone from Andor’s arm right through her heart; something had happened, which caused her cheeks to glow with a fire other than that produced by the heat of the dance and made her own hands tremble when they rested on Andor’s shoulder. And there was that in his look which made her eyes burn and fill with tears.
“You are beautiful, Elsa! I love you!”
She could not answer him, of course; how could she, when she felt that her throat was choked with sobs? Yet she felt so happy, so happy that never since the day of her first communion, when Pater Bonifácius had blessed her and assured her that her soul was as white as that of an angel — never since then had she known such perfect, such absolute happiness. She could not speak, she almost thought once that she was going to faint, so strange was the thrill of joy which went right through her when Andor’s lips rested for one brief, sweet moment upon her shoulder.
And now the lights are burning low, the gipsies scrape their fiddles with a kind of wild enthusiasm, which pervades them just as much as the dancers. Round and round in a mad twirl now, the men hold the girls with both hands by the waist, the girls put a hand on each of their partner’s shoulders; thus they spin round and round, petticoats flying, booted feet stamping the ground.
The young faces are all hot and streaming, quick breaths come in short, panting gasps from these young chests. The spectators join in the excitement, the men stamp and clap their heels to the rhythm of the dance, the women beat their hands one against the other to that same wild, syncopated measure. Old men grasp middle-aged women round the waist; smiling, self-deprecatingly they too begin to tread; Hej! ’Tis not so long ago we were young too, and that wild Hungarian csárdás fires the blood until it glows afresh.
Everyone moves, every body sways, it is impossible to keep quite still while that intoxicating rhythm fills the air.
Only Klara the Jewess stands by, stolid and immovable; the Magyar blood is not in her, hers is the languorous Oriental blood, the supple, sinuous movements of the Levant. She watches this bacchanalian whirligig with a sneer upon her thin, red lips. Beside her Erös Béla too is still, the scowl has darkened on his face, his one eye leers across the group of twirling dancers to that one couple close to the musicians’ platform.
In the noise that goes on around him he cannot, of course, hear the words which Andor speaks, but he sees the movements of the young man’s lips, and the blush which deepens over Elsa’s face. That one eye of his, keener than any pair of eyes, has seen the furtive kiss, quick and glowing, which grazed the girl’s bare shoulder, and noted the quiver which went right through the young, slender body and the look that shot through the quickly-veiled blue eyes.
He was only a peasant, a rough son of the soil, whose temperament was hot with passion and whose temper had never known a curb. He had never realized until this moment how beautiful Elsa was, and how madly he loved her. For he called the jealous rage within by the sacred name of love, and love to a Magyar peasant is his whole existence, the pivot round which he frames his life, his thoughts of the present, his dreams of the future.
The soil and the woman! — they are his passions, his desires, his religion — to own a bit of land — of Hungarian land — and the woman whom he loves. Those two possessions will satisfy him — beyond these there is nothing worth having — a plough, of course — a hut wherein to sleep — an ox or two, perhaps — a cow — a horse.
But the soil and the woman on whom he has fixed his love — we’ll call it love… he certainly calls it so — those two possessions make the Hungarian peasant more contented than any king or millionaire of Western civilization.
Erös Béla had the land. His father left him a dozen kataszter (land measure about two and three-quarter acres) or so; Elsa was the woman whom he loved, and the only question was who — he or Andor — would be strong enough to gain the object of his desire.
“You will wait for me?”
But now it is all over, the final bar of the csárdás has been played, the last measure trodden. From the railway station far away the sharp clang of a bell has announced the doleful fact that in half an hour the train will start for Arad, thence to Brassó, where the recruits will be enrolled, ticketed, docketed like so many heads of cattle — mostly unwilling — made to do service for their country.
In half an hour the train starts, and there is so much still to say that has been left unsaid, so many kisses to exchange, so many promises, protestations, oaths.
The mothers, fearful and fussy, look for their sons in among the crowd like hens in search of their chicks; their wizened faces are hard and wrinkled like winter apples, they carry huge baskets on their arms, over-filled with the last delicacies which their fond, toil-worn hands will prepare for the beloved son for the next three years: — a piece of smoked bacon, a loaf of rye bread, a cake of maize-flour.
The lads themselves — excited after the dance, and not quite as clear-headed as they were before that last cask of Hungarian wine was tapped in Ignácz Goldstein’s cellar — feel the intoxication of the departure now, the quick goodbyes, the women’s tears. A latent spirit of adventure smothers their sorrow at leaving home.
The gipsies have struck up a melancholy Magyar folksong; the crowd breaks up in isolated groups, mothers and fathers with their sons whisper in the dark corners of the barn. The father who did his service thirty years ago gives sundry good advice — no rebellion, quiet obedience, no use complaining or grumbling, the three years are quickly over. The mother begs her darling not to give way to drink, and not to get entangled with one of the hussies in the towns; women and wine, the two besetting temptations that assail the Magyar peasant — let the darling boy resist both for his sorrowing mother’s sake.
But the lad only listens with half an ear, his dark eyes roam around the barn in search of the sweetheart; he wants one more protestation of love from her lips, one final oath of fidelity.
Andor has neither father to admonish him, nor mother to pray over him; the rich uncle Lakatos Pál, with whom he has lived hitherto, does not care enough about him to hang weeping round his neck.
And Elsa has given her father and mother the slip, and joined Andor outside the barn.
Her blue eyes — tired after fifteen hours of pleasure — blink in the glare of the brilliant sun. Andor puts his arm round her waist and she, closing her aching eyes, allows him to lead her away.
And now they are wandering down the great dusty high road, beneath the sparse shade of the stunted acacias that border it. They feel neither heat, nor dust, and say but little as they walk. From behind them, muffled by louder sounds, come the sweet, sad strains of the Magyar love-song, “Csak egy kis lány van a világon.”
“There is but one girl in all the world, And she is my own white dove. Oh! How great must God’s love be for me! That He thought of giving you to me.”
“Elsa, you will wait for me?” asked Andor, with deep, passionate anxiety at last.
“I will wait for you, Andor,” replied the girl simply, “if the good God will give me the strength.”
“The strength, Elsa, will be in yourself,” he urged, “if only you love me as I love you.”
“Three years is such a long time!” she sighed.
“I will count the weeks that separate us, Elsa — the days — the hours…”
“I, too, will be counting them.”
“When I come back I will at once talk with Pali bácsi — he is getting tired of managing his property — I know that at times lately he has felt that he needed a rest, and that he means to ask me to see to everything for him. He will give me that nice little house on the Fekete Road, and the mill to look after. We can get married at once, Elsa — when I come back.”
He talked on somewhat ramblingly, at times incoherently. It was easy to see that he was trying to cheat sorrow, to appear cheerful and hopeful, because he saw that Elsa was quite ready to give way to tears. It was so hard to walk out of fairyland just when she had entered it, and found it more beautiful than anything else in life. The paths looked so smooth and so inviting, and fairy forms beckoned to her from afar; it all would have been so easy, if only the good God had willed it so. She thought of the many sins which — in her innocent life — she had committed, and for which Pater Bonifácius had given her absolution; perhaps if she had been better — been more affectionate with her mother, more forbearing with her father, the good God would have allowed her to have this happiness in full which now appeared so shadowy.
She fell to wishing that Andor had not been quite so fine and quite so strong, that his chest had been narrower, or his eyesight less keen. Womanlike, she felt that she would have loved him just as much and more, if he were less vigorous, less powerful; and in that case the wicked government would not want him; he could stay at home and help Pali bácsi to look after his lands and his mills, and she could marry him before the spring.
Then the pressure of his arm round her waist recalled her to herself; she turned and met his glowing, compelling eyes, she felt that wonderful vitality in him which made him what he was, strong in body and strong in soul; his love was strong because his body was strong, as was his soul, his spirit and his limbs, and she no longer wished him to be weak and delicate, for then it would no longer be Andor — the Andor whom she loved.
The clang of the distant bell chased away Elsa’s last hovering dreams. Andor did not hear it; he was pressing the girl closer and closer to him, unmindful of his surroundings, unmindful that he was on the high road, and that frequently ox-carts went by laden with people, and that passers-by were hurrying now toward the railway station.
True that no one took any notice of this young man and maid; everyone was either too much absorbed in the business of the morning, or too much accustomed to these final scenes of farewell and tenderness ere the lads went off for their three years’ service, to throw more than a cursory glance on these two.
“I love you, Elsa, my dove, my rose,” Andor reiterated over and over again, “you will wait for my return, will you not?”
“I will wait, Andor,” replied the girl through her sobs.
“The thought of you will lighten my nights, and bring sunshine to my dreary days. Every morning and every evening when I say my prayers, I shall ask my guardian angel to fly over to yours, and to tell him to whisper in your ear that I love you beyond all else on earth.”
“We must part now, Andor,” she said earnestly, “the second bell has gone long ago.”
“Not yet, Elsa, not yet,” he pleaded, “just walk as far as that next acacia tree. There no one will see us, and I want one more kiss before I go.”
She never thought to resist him, since her own heart was at one with his wish, and he was going away so soon and for so long. So they walked as far as the next acacia tree, and there he took her in his arms and kissed her on the cheeks, the eyes, the lips.
“God alone knows, Elsa,” he said, and now his own voice was choked with sobs, “what it means to me to leave you. You are the one woman in the world for me, and I will thank the good God on my knees every day of my life for the priceless blessing of your love.”
After that they walked back hand in hand. They had wandered far, and in a quarter of an hour the train would be starting. It meant a week in prison in Arad for any recruit to miss the train, and Andor did mean to be brave and straight, and to avoid prison during the three years.
The gipsy musicians had carried their instruments over to the railway station; here they had ensconced themselves in full view of the train and were playing one after the other the favourite songs of those who were going away.
When Andor and Elsa reached the station the crowd in and around it was dense, noisy and full of animation and colour. A large batch of recruits who had come by the same train from more distant villages had alighted at Marosfalva and joined in the bustle and the singing. They had got over the pang of departure from home half an hour or an hour ago; they had already left the weeping mothers and sweethearts behind, so now they set to with a will in true Hungarian fashion to drown regrets and stifle unmanly tears by singing their favourite songs at the top of their rough voices, and ogling those girls of Marosfalva who happened to be unattached.
The captain in command, with his lieutenant, was pacing up and down the station platform. He now gave a command to a couple of sergeants, and the entraining began. Helter-skelter now, for it was no use losing a good seat whilst indulging in a final kiss or tear. There was a general stampede for the carriages and trucks; the recruits on ahead, behind them the trail of women, the mothers with their dark handkerchiefs tied round their heads, the girls with pale, tear-stained faces, their petticoats of many colours swinging round their shapely hips as they run, the fathers, the brothers.
Here comes Pater Bonifácius, who has finished saying his mass just in time to see the last of his lads. He has tucked his soutane well up under his sash, and he is running across the platform, his rubicund, kindly face streaming with excitement.
“Pater! Pater! Here!”
A score of voices cry to him from different carriages, and he hurries on, grasping each rough, hot hand as it is extended out to him.
“Bless you, my children,” he cries, and the large, red cotton handkerchief wanders surreptitiously from his nose to his eyes. “Bless you and keep you.”
“Be good lads,” he admonishes earnestly, “remember your confession and the holy sacraments! No drinking!”
“Oh, Pater!” comes in protesting accents all around him.
“Well! not more than is good for you. Abstinence on Fridays — a regular confession and holy communion and holy mass on Sundays will help to keep you straight before the good God.”
There’s the last bell! Clang! clang! In two minutes comes the horn, and then we are off. The gipsies are playing the saddest of sad songs, it seems as if one’s heartstrings were being wrenched out of one’s body.
“There is but one girl in all the world!”