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Baroness Emmuska Orczy
A SON OF THE PEOPLE
First published in 1906
Copyright © 2018 Classica Libris
Do you love the mountains, English reader? the romantic peaks of the Rhine country, the poetic heights of the Alps, the more gently undulating slopes of your own South Downs? As for me, I must confess to an absorbing, a passionate fondness for the lowlands, the wild, mysterious plains of Hungary, that lie, deep down, between the Danube and the Theisz, and, whenever I stand on those vast pusztas, it always seems to me that the mind must be more free, when the gaze can wander untrammelled to that far-distant horizon, which fancy can people at its own sweet will.
See how far away that horizon seems, there, where earth and sky meet in a soft-toned line of purple, the merging of the blue sky with the ruddy, sandy soil of the earth. The air trembles with the intense heat, and as the eye tries to define what lies beyond that mysterious vastness, lo! there suddenly rises on the distant horizon a vision of towers, minarets, and steeples, white and cool-looking, mirrored in some fairy pond that must lie, somewhere — there — beyond where the eye can reach. Fondly it rests on the mystic, elusive picture, thrown on the blue canvas by the fairy hand of the fitful Fata Morgana; entranced, fancy pictures those towers and minarets, peopled with beings of some other world, half earthly, half heavenly, who have found birth in that immeasurable distance, which begins where vision ends. Blinded, the eye closes for one moment, as a respite from the golden vision, and lo! when it gazes again, towers and minarets have disappeared, and, far away, only a few melancholy weeping willows or a cluster of slender poplars break the even purple line of the skies. Fondly then, fancy dwells on its dreams, and hardly now dares to call real that distant, muffled sound, the gallop of a hundred hoofs, falling on the soft, dry earth. Perhaps it is a fairy sound, and that herd of wild horses, thundering past, their manes shaking, their tails lashing, are some fairy beasts belonging to the ghouls who dwell in Fata Morgana’s distant minarets. Yet the sound is real enough; wildly the horses gallop past, followed by the csikós (herdsman) on his bare-backed mare, his white lawn shirt flying out like wings, as he passes, and cracking his lasso, as he drives his herd before him. For a moment all seems life upon the plain, for to the right and to the left the wild fowl rise affrighted overhead, and, on the ground, bright-coloured lizards rush nervously to and fro. Then the gallop dies away in the distance, the herdsman’s whip has ceased to crack, the birds have gone to rest, and the mind is left wondering whether this bit of tumultuous life was not another day-dream, painted, and then erased by fancy.
Silence reigns again: a silence rendered absolute through the drowsiness of all animal life, in the heat of the noonday sun. To the right and left, limitless fields of watermelons turn their huge, emerald-green carcases towards the burning sun; beyond them, the golden sea of wheat, the waving plumes of maize, tremble and nod at every passing breeze, whilst, from everywhere, the sweet-scented rosemary throws a note of cool grey-green on the glowing colours of the soil. Far, very far away, a windmill stretches out its long wings, like a gigantic bird of prey, and right across the plain, the high-road, riddled with ruts, wanders northwards, towards Kecskemét. And that is all! Nothing more. Only sky, and earth, and vastness — immeasurable vastness — all one’s own: to grasp, to understand, to love!
Midway between the two prosperous provincial towns of Kecskemét and Gyöngyös, on the very confines of the great Nàdasdy plain, nestles the tiny village of Árokszállás, with its few thatched cottages, and its old mediaeval church, cool and grey-looking, in the glare of the noonday sun. Near it, the presbytery, painted a brilliant yellow, with vivid emerald-green shutters, and surrounded by a small garden, where, amidst tall hollyhocks and fragrant mignonette, on hot summer afternoons, worthy old Pater Ambrosius wanders in his threadbare, well-worn cassock, telling his beads in a drowsy voice.
Then, there is the small csárda (wayside inn), with its thatched roof all on one side, for all the world like a tipsy peasant’s hat, where, in the cool of the evenings, after the work is done, the herdsmen from the plain meet their friends from the village and smoke their pipes underneath the overhanging willow tree, to the tune of a primitive gipsy band with their sweet sounding fiddles and droning bag-pipe.
Then, if the innkeeper be not within sight, and his pretty young wife ready for a bit of flirtation and gossip, the latest eccentricities of the lord of Bideskút are discussed over a draught of good red wine.
What the peasantry of the county of Heves gossiped about before my lord started his craze for machinery and building, must certainly remain a puzzle; for since the remarkable contrivances of wood and iron, which reap the corn and bind it into sheaves without help of human hand, had first been established at Bideskút, they had remained the one all-absorbing topic of conversation.
The Hungarian peasant of the alföld (lowland) is an easy-going, lazy, cheerful, and usually good-tempered individual, well content with the numerous gifts God grants him in this land of plenty; but, in the matter of my lord’s agricultural innovations, tempers had begun to run high, and, in spite of the fact that Kemény András, the most popular, as he was the most wealthy peasant farmer in the county, had refused to countenance such proceedings, nightly meetings were held at the inn, wherein universal condemnation was expressed of my lord and his misdoings.
Vas Bérczi, who had once travelled on a railway between Kecskemét and Gyöngyös, and had arrived home again safe and sound, and who in consequence, was looked upon as an oracle, second only to Kemény András himself, had brought his rough brown fist with a crash upon the table; and, having expectorated on the ground with every sign of superstitious horror, had emphatically declared that it was impossible to grind corn into flour without touch of miller’s hand, unless Satan himself did the work.
“But you don’t mean to say, Berczi,” said a young peasant, his bronzed cheek quite pale with terror, “that that is what my lord is going to do inside the building?”
“I tell you, my children, that I have it from Jankó himself, my lord’s valet, that, inside that building, which may God annihilate before it is put to such sacrilegious use, the com of Bideskút will all be ground into flour, and never hand of man touch it!” There was dead silence for a few moments; even the gipsies ceased to play: they were staring, horror-struck, at the wise bearer of these extraordinary tidings.
“Then, maybe, Jankó also told you to what use the monstrous chimney would be put?” hazarded a timid voice at last.
“Jankó must be a liar,” decided the village oracle, sententiously, “or else a fool. What do you think he said about that chimney?”
No one could conjecture; they all shook their heads sadly, filled with awe. Berczi waited, as a true orator should, preparing for a great effect, then he leaned forward on the rough, wooden table and signed to those around to come nearer. There were certain things which could only be mentioned in whispers.
“Jankó declares that the huge fire, for which that monstrously tall chimney has been built, is required in order to set a certain machine — he called it — in motion, which is to grind the com into flour. Jankó is a liar!” he repeated, but this time with less emphasis and with an anxious look around, altogether unworthy of the wisest man in Árokszállás. But all cheeks had become very pale, and no one dared to formulate the thoughts, which were running riot in the stolid, superstitious peasant minds.
“I don’t like it at all,” said a young herdsman at last, as, with a trembling hand, he raised a jug of wine to his lips.
“Who but the devil can find use for a fire big enough to fill that tall chimney with smoke?”
“Evil will come, sooner or later, my children!” concluded the village oracle, solemnly.
“And, in the meanwhile,” said a swarthy giant, with great, brown elbows resting on the table, “it is a fact that, while the work in the fields is to be done by Satan and his agency, our lads are to remain idle and take to drink for want of honest toil?”
“It looks uncommonly like it.”
“And what is to become of us? Who will pay ns wage? How are we going to live?”
“The lord of Bideskút has made a compact with the devil,” thundered the giant. “How do we know, that when our bodies are starved to death, he has not arranged to deliver up our souls to his friend Satan?” Hastily the young men crossed themselves, and their eyes, dark and full of terror, wandered superstitiously round. The quiet little village street lay peaceful and calm in the gathering shades of evening. Behind them, through the open door of the inn, could be heard the voice of the busy hostess, singing some quaint and sweet ditty, as she busied herself with tidying up the parlour and kitchen, after the day’s work. Overhead the cool, grey-green weeping willow softly sighed in the gentle summer breeze. Nothing surely to disturb the happy quietude of these simple peasant minds, and yet, superstitious terror seemed to lurk in every corner, and the eyes of none dared wander beyond the village towards the horizon, where, on ahead, a large building with its tall chimney could still be seen dimly outlined in the west “I am for asking Pater Ambrosius to say a special Mass to keep the devil away,” suggested a young herdsman at last.
“The Pater promised me he would bless plenty of holy water next Sunday; we shall want it in our homes,” said Vas Berczi, with a feeble attempt at consolation.
“There is nothing the devil hates like holy water, I am told,” whispered the giant.
“We might ask Pater Ambrosius to sprinkle the entire building with holy water,” suggested one of the men.
“Would it not be better if the Pater blessed the next rainfall, so that it should rain holy water down that chimney and put out the fire the devil has lighted?”
“There was no rain last St. Swithin’s day,” said Berczi, who was of a decidedly pessimistic turn of mind, “we shall get none for at least another ten days.”
“Time enough for the devil to settle down in the village, and then, not the Archbishop, not the Pope in Rome, himself, can drive him out again.”
“I say, we are all a set of cowards,” said the swarthy giant, suddenly jumping to his feet and pointing a huge, muscular fist towards the west. “We have allowed my lord to enter into compact with the devil, we have stood idly by, while brick upon brick was piled up to construct a palace for Satan. Now, we are told that on the day after tomorrow, all the devils in hell will be at work in that mill of Lucifer, that, on the day after tomorrow, the beautiful corn of Bideskút will be ground into flour, through no other help but that of a huge fire and a monstrous chimney, and some contrivance made of iron which I could not forge on my anvil, though I have done some pretty tough smith’s work in my day: and do you mean to tell me, mates, that we are going to stand by and look on while the bread is being taken out of our mouths and our souls delivered over to the enemy of man?”
“No, no! — Well spoken, Sándor the smith! — We will not stand it!” was the universal chorus of approbation, whilst Berczi, who did not approve of any one’s talk save his own, shrugged his shoulders in contempt. “We should be cowards if we put up with it.’’
The giant’s peroration had helped to rouse the sinking spirits. There was a general cry to the gipsies to strike up, and the czigâny (gipsy), seeing the more lively temper of the company, attacked with renewed vigour an inspiriting Magyar tune.
“Here, Lotti! more wine! quick!” shouted one or two of the older men, while the others filled fresh pipes preparatory to listening more attentively to Sándor the smith’s vigorous diction.
After a few minutes, out came the pretty hostess, with two or three bottles and jugs in her plump hands, and showing a row of snow-white teeth in a merry smile.
She was wonderfully agile in avoiding the venturesome arms stretched out to catch her slim waist, and as soon as she had put jugs and bottles down, she administered one or two vigorous corrections on the cheeks of the more foolhardy of her admirers.
“What are you all making such a noise about all of a sudden?” she said, with a toss of her tiny dark head. “I thought you were up to some mischief, you were so quiet just now!”
“Great things are happening, Lotti, my soul,” said the smith, with the importance befitting his newly-found popularity. “We have important things to discuss which are not fit for women’s ears to hear.”
Lotti looked at him while fun sparkled out of her bright, dark eyes; she shrugged her plump shoulders and said with a merry laugh:
“Dear me! dear me, Sándor! how big we talk, now that Kemény András does not happen to be here. I know what you are all concocting though I pretend I do not hear. You know András won’t allow you to say disrespectful things about my lord, or to brew mischief against him, and so you wait till you know he is well out of sight, and hatch all sorts of wickedness behind his back. But, I tell you, he is not so far as you all think. He will catch you at your tricks never fear, and then — you know he has a devil of a temper all his own!”
“And I have a devil of a temper too, my pretty Lotti,” retorted the giant laughing, “and you are very venturesome to have roused the anger of Sándor the smith. Do you think we are so many children, afraid of András as of a schoolmaster? You shall kiss me for that piece of impudence, Lotti; ay! you shall kiss me three times, which will make your lord and master so jealous that he will break his new stick across your plump shoulders. And then, who will be frightened? Eh, my pretty one?”
And with true Hungarian light-heartedness, the swarthy giant, forgetting the devil and his works, the lord of Bideskút and his steam-mills, proceeded with a merry laugh to chase the pretty woman round the table; while the young herdsmen, delighted with the scene — which was much more in accordance with their lazy, sunny dispositions than talks of devil or plots against my lord — took part, some for the smith, some for Lotti, by placing an obstructive arm either in her way or in that of her pursuer, while the bronzed musicians played a merry csárdás, and the village echoed with gaiety and noise.
Hot, panting, and excited, the pretty hostess ran round and round the table under the willow tree, closely pressed by Sándor the smith, who, however, had previously drunk a little too much of the good wine for which the county of Heves is famous, to be steady enough on his legs for a successful pursuit.
She had paused on one side of the table, holding both her hands against her heart, which was beating very hard, with the madcap race and the laughter. Sándor the smith had paused on the opposite side, both antagonists eyeing one another ready for a spring; the young peasants were laying wagers for or against the combatants, and encouraging both to resume the fight, when suddenly — without any warning — two strong arms closed round pretty Lotti’s waist, from behind, and two loud kisses were imprinted on both her dimpled cheeks, while a laughing voice shouted across to the giant:
“You went to work the wrong way, my friend Sándor. This is the way to do it, is it not, Lotti?”
And while she struggled, the new-comer succeeded in stealing one or two more kisses from the pretty woman, then he lifted her bodily off her feet, and carried her to her own door, and having placed her in safety within the parlour he shut the door, and turned with a merry laugh towards the smith, who had borne his discomfiture with a good-humoured growl.
“Have a bottle of wine with me, Sándor, to compensate you for that lost kiss. Lotti, my pigeon,” he shouted, rapping at the door, “as soon as your little heart has ceased to beat quite so fast, bring out some more wine, enough to go round. And you, czigâny, let us have the liveliest tune you can play, while we all drink to good fellowship, to pretty women, and to our beloved Magyar country, which may God bless and protect!”
There was no resisting the young peasant’s cheerful voice and contagious laugh. Very soon Lotti reappeared, pouting but tidy, with half a dozen fresh bottles which she placed on the table, taking care to give her burly antagonist a wide berth.
“Are you so very angry with Sándor, Lotti?” asked the new-comer, with a smile, “why, he only wanted to kiss you, and surely you have allowed him to do that, before now, without so much fuss.”
She shrugged her shoulders and said with quite a touch of malice in her voice:
“Ask him, András, why it was we quarrelled; why he wanted to kiss me, and why I would not let him; and see if he will tell you.”
Then she ran back to the house, but before finally closing the door, she turned again and added:
“It was because they were talking a lot of nonsense about my lord and the mill, and I would not let them, for I knew they would not have done it if you had been there.”
And with this parting shot the triumphant little person slammed the door of her parlour to, and very soon her high-pitched voice was heard singing an accompaniment to the gipsies’ primitive instruments.
Outside, beneath the overhanging willow tree, there had been silence after the young hostess’s malicious little speech. The young herdsmen and peasants, like so many chidden children, had left their wine untasted and were staring before them, silent and shamefaced, while the burly giant, and even Berczi the oracle, smoked away at their pipes, while stealing furtive glances at the new-comer.
“Well! and what is it all about?” asked the latter, looking round at the men with a good-natured smile.
There was no reply.
“That infernal steam-mill again, I suppose?” he added with a sigh.
Again there was no reply, but presently there came a grunt from old Berczi:
“Did you know that it was going to be started on its godless work on the day after tomorrow, András?” he asked.
“And I suppose that from the day after tomorrow we can all lie down and starve, for there will be no more work for honest hands to do, when Satan turns on his fire and his smoke, and sows, reaps, binds, and grinds God’s com on God’s earth,” added the village oracle.
“And what I was saying when that little cat interrupted me,” said Sándor the smith, “was that—”
But very quietly András’s rough brown hand was placed on the giant’s arm, and his cheery voice interrupted calmly:
“What you were saying, Sándor, and what all the others agreed with at once, because they knew it was quite true, was that it did not matter what the devil and my lord did over there at Bideskút, for there was always Kemény András at Kisfalu, who would find work for all willing hands, and whose purse is long enough to prevent any one for leagues around to want for anything, let alone to starve!”
Again there was dead silence, while the look of shame deepened on the faces of all. The gipsies were playing a tender, appealing tune, a Hungarian folk-song that would soften the heart of any hearer.
“You are a good sort, András,” said the village oracle, while Sándor the smith drank a mugful of wine to get rid of an uncomfortable lump in his throat, “but—”
“There is no ‘but,’ my mates. We must stand by one another, and, believe me, that is all nonsense about the devil turning the machinery. I can’t explain it all to you, but Pater Ambrosius has promised me this evening, that tomorrow, instead of a sermon, he will make it quite clear to you, what it is that will grind the corn in my lord’s new mill. Then you will understand all about it, just as I think I understand it, and, till then, I want you all to try and forget that accursed mill, or at any rate not to brood over it. It is getting late and I have a long ride home, but will you all promise me that, until tomorrow after Mass you will try not to think about the mill? And this is to all of you and your very good health,” he added, raising his mug of wine. “Have I your promise?”
The answer was unanimous. Evidently the rich young peasant was popular; his words had carried weight. The mugs of wine were emptied, and a sigh of relief and satisfaction escaped the lips of all. The gipsies started a livelier tune, as András uttered a soft call:
“Csillag, my beauty, where are you?”
There was the sound of hoofs on the dry, sandy earth, and a lovely black mare, sleek and graceful, emerged from out the darkness, and coming quite close to the table where the peasants were drinking, found her way to her master’s side, and there waited quietly for him. She carried neither saddle, stirrup, nor bridle, but the peasants on the Hungarian pusztas need no such accessories. Their horses seem almost a part of themselves, as they ride at breakneck speed across the sandy plains.
In a moment, András was astride across his mare, and with a shout of “Farewell!” to his friends, a responsive “Éljen!” (Long live!) from them, he had galloped away into the darkness.
All was astir in the castle, in the stables, the farmyard, the park and garden of Bideskút. The innumerable grooms, coachmen, cooks, and maids rushed hither and thither, like so many chickens let loose, busy, each with his or her own work, hot, panting, and excited. The Countess, herself, accustomed as she was to the boundless hospitality of a Hungarian nobleman, could not quite shake off the electrical wave of excitement which pervaded the whole house. The festivals in honour of her birthday, coupled with those for the opening of the new steam-mill, were in full preparation. Today, still, the big house was fairly free from guests; but tomorrow, probably, the stream of arrivals would commence, and would continue throughout the day.
As to the numbers of the invaders it was wholly problematical: it was generally known throughout the county that the 28th of August was Countess Irma’s birthday, that Bideskút itself had some sixty guest chambers, and that any Hungarian noble, far or near, with all his family, was sure, during the few days’ gaiety by which the occasion was annually celebrated, to find the warmest welcome, the most lavish hospitality, the richest and choicest of wines, in the time-honoured traditions of the Hungarian lowland.
Therefore Bideskúty Gyuri, and the Countess Irma, his wife, were at this season of the year always prepared to receive a number of guests; oxen, sheep, and lambs were indiscriminately slaughtered, also geese, ducks, poultry of every kind; the whitest of bread baked, the oldest casks of wine tapped, the finest cloths, sheets, and napkins aired, all ready for the probable hundred guests, their children, their coachmen and valets, their couriers, and their maids.
In one of the old-fashioned, lofty rooms of the ancestral home of Bideskút, the lord thereof and his aristocratic wife sat discussing the final arrangements for the entertainment of all the expected and unexpected guests. Pine old oak and mahogany chairs and tables, turned and carved by the skilful hands of a village carpenter, furnished the room, whilst curtains of thick unbleached linen, embroidered in exquisite designs of many colours, hung before the small leaded windows, and tempered the glare of the midday sun.
Bideskúty Gyuri, jovial and good-tempered, was smoking his favourite pipe, while Countess Irma was telling off, on her slender fingers, the row of guests she was expecting on the morrow:
“The Egregyis are sure to come,” she said, meditatively, the Kantássys, the Vécserys, the Palotays, the Arany, the Miskolczys, and the Bartócz: these are all quite certain. You cannot reckon less than four servants to each, and with their children and any friends they may bring with them, will make no less than seventy that we are quite sure of. Then another forty or fifty always come, beyond those one expects. You remember last year we sat down one hundred and seventy to dinner.”
“Well, my dear,” rejoined my lord, “you give what orders you like, and kill whatever you wish eaten. Thank God there is plenty of food in Bideskút to feed every friend and his family for as long as they choose to take a bite with us. If there is not enough room to give them each a separate bed, then we can lay straw all round the riding school, and the younger men can sleep there, and leave the good rooms for the ladies and children. Kill, my dear, by all means; let Panna slaughter what poultry she will, pull up what cabbages and carrots she wants, there is plenty and to spare!”
And Bideskúty, proud and secure in his fat lands, which yielded him all that could enable him to exercise the lavish hospitality for which his country is famous, leaned back in his arm-chair, and puffed away contentedly at his long cherry-wood pipe.
“I wish I could have got Ilonka a new silk dress for the occasion,” said Countess Irma, a little wistfully.
“My dear,” laughed her lord, jovially, “Ilonka will look bewitching in that bit of muslin I bought from the Jew for her for a couple of florins, and you know quite well that greasy bank-notes and other portraits of our well-beloved majesty, Francis Joseph, are very scarce in this land of ours. And I say thank God for that! We never want for anything we cannot have. Why,” he added with a pleasurable chuckle, “if it were not for my mill and my machinery I should never wish to see a bank-note from year’s end to year’s end.”
“And yet you will go on spending it on that accursed steam-mill and those reaping machines, which the peasants fear and hate, and I must say I do not blame them for that. God never had anything to do with those things. They are the devil’s own invention, Gyuri, and I cannot help dreading that some trouble will come of it all.”
“Why! you talk like some of those superstitious peasants themselves. You women cannot understand the enormous boon and profit it will be to me and to my land, when my steam-mill is regularly at work.”
“The profit may or may not come by and by; I dare say I do not understand these things, but I do see that you cannot possibly go on spending money with both hands on those inventions of Satan.”
Bideskúty did not reply. He had found by long experience that it was always best to oppose silence to his wife’s voluble talk whenever the subject of his favourite and costly fad cropped up between them.
“Gyuri,” resumed Countess Irma, “it is not too late. Will you give up this folly, and not mar the jolly times we always have on my birthday, by starting that mill on its ungodly work?”
“My dear,” replied her lord, driven out of his stronghold of silence by this direct question, “you are supposed to be an intelligent woman; therefore, you do not imagine that I have spent close upon a million florins in building a mill, and do not mean to see it at work now that it is finished?”
“You have only gone on with the thing from a feeling of obstinacy, Gyuri; it is not too late to give in. There is not a soul who has not dissuaded you from continuing these terrible new-fangled notions, which have already made you hideously unpopular on your own estate.”
Once more her lord had entrenched himself behind a barrier of impenetrable silence. Dreamily he went on smoking his long-stemmed cherry-wood pipe, and allowed the flood of his wife’s eloquence to spend itself over his unresisting head.
“Gyuri,” continued the Countess, “I have noticed that you have received lately a great many visits from the Jews. When we were first married, never one of them darkened our doors. You know I hate all your machinery fads, so you tell me nothing of what you are doing with them, but no Jew would come here, unless there was something to buy or sell, or money to lend at usury. You will indeed bring shame upon us, if you begin to sell your lands, your corn, or your wine, just like any Jew tradesman. There is plenty and to spare, I know, you have said it yourself, but the corn does not grow upon a Hungarian nobleman’s estate that he should dirty his fingers by taking money for it.”
“My dear,” suggested the lord of Bideskút mildly, “when I took over this property, after my father’s death, I found over thirty thousand measures of wheat rotting away, without the slightest use being made of it.”
“Well!” she said, “why not? why should it not rot? If there is too much of it, even to give away? In my father’s house in one year three thousand measures of wheat went bad, and he would have allowed fifty thousand to go the same way sooner than sell it. Take money for it?. — . — . Horrible!” she added, with all the pride of her long line of ancestry.
Again her husband did not reply; perhaps he thought of the fact that neither his wife nor any of her sisters would probably have had a roof over their heads at this moment if they had not been married; for not only the corn, but the fields, the beasts, the farms, and even the ancestral home had long since passed into the hands of the Jews; their father had not sullied his fingers by trafficking with his corn and timber, but had mortgaged his land, his house, his all, up to the hilt, and left his children proud as Lucifer, but without a groat apiece.
The Countess Irma was still a very handsome woman, in spite of her forty-odd years. Her figure was shapely, her skin still fresh, her hair as black as the raven’s wing. She had been a great beauty in her day, and had been the acknowledged belle of the two carnivals she spent at Budapesth. Her mother had brought her up in the firmly-rooted principle that it is the duty of every Hungarian aristocratic girl to be beautiful, and to make a good marriage, and the young Countess Irma, when she reached the age of eighteen, was quite ready to do both. The first year of her going out she picked and chose carefully amongst her adorers, for she had many. High lineage and vast estates were an absolute sine qua non before any partner dared even to ask her to dance the cotillon. “Humanity begins with the Barons,” was her much-repeated statement, which virtually choked off any aspirant to her hand who was not thus elevated in the human scale. But alas! the first year went by, and Countess Irma had not found the proper parti that would suit her own and her mother’s pride, and the following year it was vaguely whispered in the aristocratic club of Budapesth that she had not been heard to make her sweeping statement on the subject of humanity once during the carnival.
The next carnival came and went, and Countess Irma, to her horror, noted that at two balls of the season she was obliged to have a headache before the cotillon, for she had not secured a partner. Things were beginning to look absolutely tragic when suddenly Bideskúty Gyuri appeared upon the scene. He was young, good-looking, owned half the county of Heves, and professed to be violently in love with the somewhat faded beauty; true, he was not a Baron, and therefore a couple of years ago might have been ranked on a level with the Countess’s lapdog and pet canary; but since then much water had flowed down the Danube and the world was becoming more radical throughout. Bideskúty paid his court, was duly accepted, and the Countess Irma was heard, at the great Casino ball, to remark that humanity embraced every Hungarian noble who owned half of any county.
They had led a very comfortable married life together, Gyuri being always willing to give way to his wife in all matters; fortunately her tastes were very similar to his in all but one respect; like him, she loved the almost regal life of a Hungarian nobleman upon his estates, and, like him, once married, she cared nothing for Budapesth, where money was necessary, of which they had very little, and where she would perforce have to eat the meat of other people’s oxen and calves, and vegetables grown in some alien garden; like him, she was absolutely indifferent as to the political aspect of the country; she loved it because it was her own country and therefore must be better than anybody else’s, and because better corn and wine grew there, fatter beasts were fed there, than in any other country in the world; but, as to the changes of ministry up there in Budapesth, as to parliaments, elections, union with Austria, or complete severance, neither she nor her lord cared anything about that; so long as her daughter Ilonka, in her turn, made a suitable marriage, and her husband did not get into the Jews’ hands through his unfortunate fondness for agricultural improvements, she would just as soon have seen Hungary in the hands of Russians, Hottentots, or even Germans. Serenely she would have sailed through life, satisfied that all was for the best in this best possible world, if alas! the crumpled roseleaf had not troubled her, in the shape of her husband’s unfortunate craze for machinery, which reeked of bourgeoisism,” and was altogether unworthy of a Hungarian nobleman, whose duty it was to eat and drink, to live in a lordly manner, to entertain his friends, and to leave all other matters to people who had no ancestors, and formed therefore no integral part of humanity.
“Rosenstein the Jew is downstairs, my lord,” announced Jankó, Bideskúty’s valet, respectfully opening the door, “he says your lordship has bid him come this morning.”
Countess Irma made no comment; before a servant, even the most trusted, she never gainsaid or argued with the head of the house, but invariably set the example herself of complete respect and deference. Nothing could be gained now by commenting on the arrival of Rosenstein, whose shuffling steps she could already hear in the passage.
“Well! my dear,” said Bideskúty, a little nervously, “perhaps you had better have another interview with Panna, while I speak with Rosenstein, and, remember, you have my permission to kill everything on the farm you want, and to order whatever you like, so long as you see that there is plenty to eat, and we bring no shame on the hospitality of Bideskút. Tell the Jew to come in,” he added, turning to his valet, “and mind he wipes his dirty shoes before he walks across the hall.”
The next moment the Jew, with doubled spine and obsequious bow, entered humbly into the room. As the Countess sailed majestically past him, he tried to stoop still lower, and to kiss the hem of her gown, but gathering her skirts closely round her, and without vouchsafing him the merest look, she left her husband alone with him.
Rosenstein’s age could not be easily guessed at, not even approximately; his scanty hair, of a dull carroty colour, hung from beneath a faded skull-cap, in two locks on each side of his face. His long gaberdine, buttoned all the way down the front, hung loosely on his spare frame, and was worn almost threadbare on the sharp, protruding blades of his shoulders. He rubbed his thin, claw-like hands incessantly together, and his watery blue eyes were fixed on the floor, all the time the noble lord deigned to converse with him. Only from time to time, when he thought himself unobserved, he threw a sharp, malignant look at the Hungarian, then his thin lips almost disappeared between his teeth, and there was that in his colourless eyes which would have taught a shrewd man to beware.
“Have you brought me the money?” asked Bideskúty, peremptorily.
“Well, you see, my lord, it is this way: your lord-ship knows that I am a poor man, and cannot possibly find so great a sum myself, and—”
“I know the usual lie,” interrupted Bideskúty, laughing. “Never mind telling me about the obliging friend who is willing to come to the rescue, at the cost of exorbitant interest, for which you will have to promise my best bit of land as security. Tell me quickly if you will take Zárda as security for the two hundred and fifty thousand florins, and what interest you will want for it?”
“Zárda is very poor security, noble lord, for a quarter of a million. There is no house, and—”
“Hey! the devil take these Jews,” thundered Bideskúty, “they have lived in mud huts all their lives, their ancestors were vermin in the gutter, and now they want a house to live in. Zarda will never get into your dirty hands, never fear; I will redeem it, and all my lands, as soon as my mill is at work, and my flour becomes famed throughout the country.”
“Your lordship speaks words of wisdom,” said the wily Jew, throwing surreptitiously a sarcastic glance at Bideskúty, “the steam-mill is a grand speculation, for it will lessen labour, and therefore improve the condition of your peasantry. That is the reason why my friends are not averse to letting me have the money, which I am most desirous of lending to your lordship for so noble a purpose on the not very good security of Zárda.”
“Hold your confounded tongue about Zárda; it will be ample honour for you in exchange for your cursed money, if ever your dirty foot even treads its soil. What about the interest?”
Rosenstein had bitten his lips hard while Bideskúty poured out this flood of abusive language. He and his race, patient, tenacious, thick-skinned, are used to this accompaniment to the ever-increasing monetary transactions they have with the extravagant, proud Hungarian nobility. They take it as part of the contract, and charge interest accordingly.
“Oh, my lord,” he said mildly, “I was forced to accept my friends’ conditions as regards the interest; I am a poor man myself, and after I have paid them but little will remain for me on which to live: fortunately I have simple tastes, and one hundred measures of wheat out of the fifty thousand they will require a year will be quite enough for me.”
“Fifty thousand measures of wheat? You scoundrel! you—”
“It is not I, noble lord, I protest, it is my friends: they say the price of wheat will be lower than ever this year; that is why the hundred head of cattle, in addition—”
“A hundred head of cattle, besides? You low dog, villainous usurer—”
“Of which I shall only get one ox and one calf for myself, my lord; and how is a poor man to live? My friends will not let me have the money without they have ninety-eight head of cattle, and the wheat, not to speak of the five hundred head of sheep, and the eight hundred poultry, of which they will only allow me twenty-five for myself for arranging this very difficult matter for them.”
“You infernal scoundrel, if you do not hold your tongue I will call Jankó in to give you such a beating as you never had in your life. Ten thousand measures of wheat, forty oxen, twenty calves, three hundred sheep, and five hundred poultry I will give you, but not a grain of com, or tail of lamb beyond.”
The Jew’s eyes twinkled beneath their thin purple lids, but he kept them steadily fixed on the floor, as he shook his head doubtfully and said:
“I have spoken to my friends very clearly on the subject, I have told your lordship their final word as to the interest; they will not go back on it.”
“And I tell you, man, that I will not pay such usury, and if you dare stand there, and demand it, I will have you beaten by the servants.”
“Then, I much regret, my lord,” said Rosenstein, humbly, “that we shall not be doing business today.”
“But, you cursed, dirty Jew, may the devil get into that wooden head of thine! I tell you I must have that money at once. The wages of the Budapesth engineers and workpeople are in arrears, and I still owe part of the money for the machinery, the devil take it!”
“If your lordship wishes, I will speak to my friends again, but I have little hope that they will give in about the interest.”
“For God’s sake, stop those lies! you know I do not believe in them; I will give you ten thousand measures of wheat—”
“Fifty thousand, my lord—”
“Twenty, I say. Sixty head of cattle—”
“One hundred, my lord—”
“Eighty; and may the devil give them the plague as soon as your dirty hands have touched them. Four hundred sheep—”
“I said twenty thousand measures of wheat, eighty head of cattle, four hundred sheep, and five hundred fowls; and may I join you and your lot down in hell if I give you anything else.”
“And, most noble lord, I must assure you that unless my friends get fifty thousand measures of wheat, one hundred head of cattle, five hundred sheep, and eight hundred fowls, they will not advance the money.” This was decidedly exasperating. Bideskúty was badly in want of the money, and the cursed Jew was obstinate; it looked very much as if the nobleman would have to give way to the usurer. A disgraceful thing, surely, absolutely unheard of in past generations, when these wretches were only too happy to lend their money to the noble Barons who required it.
“Look here, you scoundrel,” decided Bideskúty at last, “I have told you my final word with regard to that interest. Take what I offered and go in peace.
But if you persist in demanding your usurious percentage, since I must have the money, I will pay it, but then I will hand you over to the lacqueys for a sound beating before you leave this house. Now choose which you will have, will you take twenty thousand measures of wheat, eighty head of cattle, four hundred sheep, and five hundred fowl, or not?”
“I will take fifty thousand measures of wheat, your lordship,” repeated the Jew quietly, “one hundred head of cattle, five hundred sheep, and eight hundred fowls—”
“With the beating, then?”
The Jew paused a while, and looked up one instant at the aristocratic figure before him. Tall and powerful, with proud-looking eyes and noble bearing, Bideskúty stood as the very personification of the race which for centuries had buffeted, tormented, oppressed the Jews, denying them every human right, treating them worse than any dog or gipsy. Was the worm turning at the latter half of the nineteenth century? Would the oppressed, armed with their patiently amassed wealth, turn on the squandering, improvident oppressor, secure in the gold, which very soon would rule even this fair Arcadia, the Hungarian lowlands?
Dreamily the Jew rubbed the threadbare patch across his shoulders, which plainly testified that he was not new to these encounters with irate noblemen and their lacqueys; then he assented quietly:
“With the beating, most noble lord.”
Bideskúty laughed heartily. All his wrath had vanished. Since he could have the treat of seeing the Jew well flogged, he thought he had not paid too high a price for his pleasure. Rosenstein unbuttoned his threadbare garment, and taking out two large sheets of paper from an inner pocket, spread them out upon the table.
“What the devil is that?” asked Bideskúty.
“Will your honour be so kind as to sign? It is merely an acknowledgment of the debt, and a guarantee that the interest will be paid.”
Bideskúty had become purple with rage.
“You confounded dog, and is not the word of a Hungarian nobleman enough? What can your greasy bits of paper compel me to do, if my own word of honour does not bind me to it?”
“You see, my lord,” said the Jew, with the requisite amount of softness that turneth away wrath, “it is not for myself. My friends will require some guarantee from me. They are not used to dealing with honourable lords like yourself.”
The Jew had said this with a slightly sarcastic intonation, whilst his mild blue eyes rested maliciously on Bideskúty, who, however, noted neither the tone nor the look.
“You shall be made to eat a piece of pork for this confounded impudence,” he said, as he pulled savagely the papers towards him.
He did not take the trouble to read over the documents; such a proceeding, as suggesting knowledge of business matters, would have been wholly unworthy of so noble a descendant of the Bideskútys who helped to place King Mátyás on the throne. In large, somewhat shaky schoolboy hand, he traced his name at the bottom of both the pages without further protest. He had caught sight of a well-filled, very greasy pocket-book, which bulged out of Rosenstein’s pocket.
“Now for the money,” he said, throwing down the pen, “and after that for the pleasure of seeing my men give you the soundest hiding you ever had in your life.”
The Jew read both documents over carefully, threw the sifted sand over the august signature, then deliberately folded them up and placed them in his pocket. Bideskúty was getting impatient, jerkily he puffed away at his cherry-wood pipe, whilst his eyes travelled longingly towards the panoply of sticks and riding-whips which adorned his wall. Evidently he thought that they would lose nothing by waiting, for he did not speak, till one by one Rosenstein counted out two hundred and fifty notes of one thousand florins each, which passed from his own greasy fingers into the noble lord’s aristocratic palms.
“At any time,” added the Jew, “that your lordship will require my services, I shall be most pleased to intercede with my rich friends, who, I feel sure, will, on my recommendation, always oblige your lordship.”
But the lord of Bideskút was not listening; he had thrust the bank-notes into his pocket, and, opening the door, shouted loudly for Jankó.
“Take this cursed Jew,” he said jovially, “down to the kitchen, and see if he will sooner eat a bit of pork, or take a hiding from some of you. Stay!” he added, seeing that Jankó, a sturdy peasant, had already seized the Jew by the collar, “I want to see the fun. Come along, old chap, you know you made your choice; perhaps you will find that extra bit of interest well worth half an hour’s trouble. And if they happen to kill you, the whole of your tribe can share between them the fifty thousand measures of wheat, and the rest of the confounded stuff. Now then, Jankó, you can try that new riding-whip of yours on him. Come along, I am in a hurry!”
Rosenstein had become livid. Perhaps at heart he never quite believed that Bideskúty meant to put his threat in execution, but now there seemed no doubt about it, for Jankó, with a vigorous kick directed against his lean shanks, had already persuaded him to follow his tormentor down-stairs.
Noisy talk and boisterous laughter proceeded from the kitchen, where a number of cooks in white caps and aprons, assisted by an army of kitchen-maids and scullions, were busy preparing meat, bread, cakes, and what not for the coming festivities. Silence fell all round as the master entered, laughing joyously and followed by sturdy Jankó pushing the thin, trembling figure of the Jew before him.
“Here! Panna! Mariska! Zsuzsi! all of you. Bring a chair and table here, for I have brought you a guest, an honoured guest, whom you must treat with respect. You must give him the choicest piece off that pig we killed yesterday. Ha! ha!” he chuckled, looking round at Rosenstein, who, helpless under Jankód grip, was looking savagely round him, like a fox caught in a trap, and throwing deadly looks of hatred at the noble lord before him. The merry peasant girls had caught the spirit of the fun; Panna, Zsuzsi, Mariska, the bright-eyed village beauties, had already bustled round the big centre table. They had spread a clean white doth, brought out plate, knife, and fork, and set a chair before it.
With much laughter and cries of delight, two powerful peasant lads had lifted the struggling Jew off his feet and seated him forcibly in the chair, while they wound some rope round him and secured him firmly to his seat. This was rare fun; Bideskúty, astride on a chair, was giving laughing directions to his servants, while the girls from every part of the house came running in, their bright-coloured petticoats swinging round their shapely limbs, their arms bare, their faces aglow with excitement, and stood in the doorways, convulsed with delight at seeing a Jew made to eat a bit of pork. Suddenly a great ripple of laughter greeted the arrival of Benko, the portly chief cook, in snow-white jacket, trousers, and cap, with an immense apron across his burly front, and carrying high up in triumph, a gigantic leg of pork, roasted to a turn, the crackling still spluttering, brown and delicious-looking.
“That’s splendid,” said Bideskúty, whilst the girls clapped their hands with delight, and Jankó officiously took a large napkin and tied it under the Jew’s chin. He could scarcely do it for very laughter, tears were streaming down his cheeks, and he had to stop every now and then in order to hold his aching sides.
“Now then, old fellow, I’ll warrant you have never had so good a feast in all your life.”
Rosenstein certainly did not look as if he enjoyed the fun, which made it all the more amusing. His face was absolutely ghastly, his eyes rolled round and round, more in rage than in fear. He could not move, for he was tightly pinioned to the chair, and each of his hands, which had been made to grip a knife and fork, was firmly held by the steel-like grasp of a young herdsman. But the looks which he threw at his chief tormentor were so full of deadly hatred that perhaps had the noble lord stopped to note them, he would have paused, awed at the infinite depths of human passion that lay behind those mild, colourless, watery eyes.
In the meanwhile Benko had carved two magnificent slices of meat, and with much laughter, the two men were gradually forcing the Jew to put one piece after another into his mouth. He tried to struggle, but in vain; his tormentors had a very tight hold of him, and when he made futile efforts not to swallow the morsels forbidden by the laws of his race, they held his mouth and nose in a tight grip, so that he was forced to swallow, lest he should choke.
There never had been such laughter in the kitchen of Bideskút; merry peals rang right through the house, so that the Countess and Mademoiselle Ilonka sent to know what the fun was. All the servants had crowded in, and for a quarter of an hour all the coming festivities were forgotten, the bread left in the oven, the huge roast on the spits, in the joy of seeing a Jew swallow two slices of pork. Rosenstein, after the first few struggles for liberty, had resigned himself to his fate, further persuaded into submission by the ominous cracking of the herdsmen’s whips in the scullery beyond. Bideskúty had laughed till he cried. Certainly he had ceased to regret those last measures of corn, and extra head of cattle and sheep, which were to pay the exorbitant interest on the Jew’s money, since they had procured him the best fun he had had for many a day.
At last it was decided that the Jew had eaten as much as he conveniently could; moreover, there really was no time for any more merriment that day, if full justice was to be done to the plenteous hospitality of Bideskút. The noble lord gave the signal, and the Jew was released from his bonds; trembling with rage, he tried to make his way out of the kitchen, through the laughing groups of pretty maids, who, with mock gravity, dropped him ironical curtsies, to speed the parting guest.
Bideskúty evidently thought that the Jew had paid sufficiently for his outrageous demands, for Rosenstein was spared the promised beating; one or two cracks across his lean shanks, from the long whips of the young herdsmen, was all he had to endure. He did not stop to rub the sore places, nor did he cast another look at his tormentors. With all the speed his shuffling feet would allow, he hurried out of the lordly abode of his debtor; his lips tightly compressed, his fingers nervously clutched together, he crossed the hall, the park, and the acacia plantation. Outside the gates he stopped, and, like Lot’s wife, he looked back.
The château of Bideskút, the ancestral home of the Bideskútys ever since they had helped Hunyady Mátyás to the throne, was in itself not a very imposing building, except perhaps owing to its vastness: a low, regular, two-storied construction, built in a quadrangle round a courtyard in the middle. The stone had been plastered and painted over a bright yellow, after the fashion of the beginning of the century, and a double row of green shutters ran like two bright-coloured belts all round the house. The garden was mostly laid out in quaint, conventional beds of standard rose trees, each surmounted with a gaily-coloured glass ball, that threw pretty patches of brightness against a background of tall, sweet-scented acacias. A wide, circular stone stair led from the lower to the vast upper hall, which occupied a large portion of the main wing, and was par excellence the great dining-hall, where two hundred guests could dine without being crowded, at the two huge horse-shoe tables that stood on the tiled floor. Half-way up the stairs, in a niche in the stone wall, a gigantic granite statue of Attila frowned down on those who passed.
The guest-chambers formed two sides of the quadrangle, and opened out under a veranda on to the courtyard, in the middle of which there was a round garden, bordered with dwarf acacias, and laid out with more beds of standard rose trees and coloured glass balls. The veranda ran round, supported by columns, in the capitals of which swallows had built their nests. The last side of the quadrangle contained the vast kitchen, offices, and rooms for the women and indoor servants; the others — gardeners, grooms, herdsmen, and shepherds — slept under the blue vault of heaven, wrapped in their great sheepskin coats.
For full five minutes Rosenstein the Jew stood at the gates, his thin hands clutching the iron fretwork, his colourless eyes aglow with inward passion, the very personification, the living statue of a deadly, revengeful hatred. For full five minutes he stood there, till he saw a graceful vision in white come wandering down the sweet-scented alley, then he once more turned towards the village and went his way.
Turning his back on the great gates, Rosenstein the Jew walked away towards the plain.