WORKS OF MAURUS JOKAI
THE POOR PLUTOCRATS
Translated from the Hungarian
R. NISBET BAIN
NEW YORK DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1899, BY DOUBLEDAY & McCLURE CO.
"Szegeny Gazdagok" is, perhaps, the most widely known of all Maurus Jokai's masterpieces. It was first published at Budapest, in 1860, in four volumes, and has been repeatedly translated into German, while good Swedish, Danish, Dutch and Polish versions sufficiently testify to its popularity on the Continent. Essentially a tale of incident and adventure, it is one of the best novels of that inexhaustible type with which I am acquainted. It possesses in an eminent degree the quality of vividness which R. L. Stevenson prized so highly, and the ingenuity of its plot, the dramatic force of its episodes, and the startling unexpectedness of its denouement are all in the Hungarian master's most characteristic style. I know of no more stirring incident in contemporary fiction than the terrible wrestling match between strong Juon the goatherd and the supple bandit Fatia Negra in the presence of two trembling, defenceless women, who can do nothing but look on, though their fate depends upon the issue of the struggle,—and we must go back to the pages of that unsurpassed master of the weird and thrilling Sheridan Le Fanu to find anything approaching the terror of poor Henrietta's awful midnight vigil in the deserted csarda upon the lonely heath when, at the very advent of her mysterious peril, she discovers, to her horror, that her sole companion and guardian, the brave old squire, cannot be aroused from his drugged slumbers.
There is naturally not so much scope for the display of Jokai's peculiar and delightful humour, in a novel of incident like the present tale as there is in that fine novel of manners: "A Hungarian Nabob." Yet even in "Szegeny Gazdagok," many of the minor characters (e.g., the parasite Margari, the old miser Demetrius, the Hungarian Miggs, Clementina, the frivolous Countess Kengyelesy), are not without a mild Dickensian flavour, while in that rugged but good-natured and chivalrous Nimrod, Mr. Gerzson, the Hungarian novelist has drawn to the life one of the finest types we possess of the better sort of sporting Magyar squires.
Finally, this fascinating story possesses in an eminent degree the charm of freshness and novelty, a charm becoming rarer every year in these globe-trotting days, when the ubiquitous tourist boasts that he has been everywhere and seen everything. Yet it may well be doubted whether even he has penetrated to the heart of the wild, romantic, sylvan regions of the Wallachian and Transylvanian Alps, which is the theatre of the exploits of that prince of robber chieftains, the mighty and mysterious Fatia Negra, and the home of those picturesque Roumanian peasants whom Jokai loves to depict and depicts so well.
R. NISBET BAIN.
I. BOREDOM II. A NEW MODE OF DUELLING III. AN AMIABLE MAN IV. CHILDISH NONSENSE V. SHE IS NOT FOR YOU VI. BRINGING HOME THE BRIDE VII. THE CAVERN OF LUCSIA VIII. STRONG JUON IX. THE GEINA MAID-MARKET X. THE BLACK JEWELRY XI. TWO TALES, OF WHICH ONLY ONE IS TRUE XII. THE SOIREES AT ARAD XIII. TIT FOR TAT XIV. THE MIKALAI CSARDA XV. WHO IT WAS THAT RECOGNIZED FATIA NEGRA XVI. LEANDER BABEROSSY XVII. MR. MARGARI XVIII. THE UNDISCOVERABLE LADY XIX. THE SHAKING HAND XX. THE FIGHT FOR THE GOLD XXI. THE HUNTED BEAST XXII. THE SIGHT OF TERROR XXIII. THE ACCOMMODATION XXIV. CONCLUSION
"Was it you who yawned so, Clementina?"
The questioner was an old gentleman in his eightieth year or so, dressed in a splendid flowered silk Kaftan, with a woollen night-cap on his head, warm cotton stockings on his feet, and diamond, turquoise, and ruby rings on his fingers. He was reclining on an atlas ottoman, his face was as wooden as a mummy's, a mere patch-work of wrinkles, he had a dry, thin, pointed nose, shaggy, autumnal-yellow eyebrows, and his large prominent black eyes protected by irritably sensitive eyelids, lent little charm to his peculiar cast of countenance.
"Well! Will nobody answer? Who yawned so loudly behind my back just now?" he asked again, with an angry snort. "Will nobody answer?"
Nobody answered, and yet there was a sufficient number of people in the room to have found an answer between them. In front of the hearth was sitting a young woman about thirty or thirty-five, with just such a strongly-pronounced pointed nose, with just such high raised eyebrows as the old gentleman's, only her face was still red (though the favour of Nature had not much to do with that perhaps) and her eyebrows were still black; but her thin lips were just as hermetically sealed as the old man's, when she was not speaking. This young woman was playing at Patience.
In one of the windows sat a young girl of sixteen, a delicate creature of rapid growth, whose every limb and feature seemed preternaturally thin and fragile. She was occupied with some sort of sewing. At another little sewing-table, immediately opposite to her, was a red-cheeked damsel with a frightful mop of light hair and a figure which had all the possibilities of stoutness before it. She was a sort of governess, and was supposed to be English, though they had only her word for it. She was reading a book.
On the silk ottoman behind lay the already-mentioned Clementina, who ought to have confessed to the sin of yawning. She was a spinster already far advanced in the afternoon of life, and had cinder-coloured ringlets around her temples and a little bit of beard on her chin. She was no blood relation of the family but, as an ancient companion to a former mistress of the house, had long eaten the bread of charity under that roof. She was now engaged upon some eye-tormenting, fine fancy work which could not have afforded the poor creature very much amusement.
The old gentleman on the sofa used to divert himself the whole day by assembling as many human beings around him as possible and driving them to desperation by his unendurable nagging and chiding; they, on the other hand, had by this time discovered that the best defence against this domestic visitation was never to answer so much as a word.
"Of course! Of course!" continued the old gentleman with stinging sarcasm. "I know what a bore it is to be near me and about me. I see through it all. Yes, I know that I am an unendurable old fellow on whom not a single word should be wasted. I know well enough that you are not sitting here beside me because you like to be here. Who compels you to? I certainly shall not prevent anybody's petticoat from going away by laying hold of it. The gate is not closed. Nothing easier than to be off. Yet nobody likes the idea, eh? Ah-ha! It is possible that when the eye of old Lapussa no longer sees, the heart of old Lapussa may no longer remember. Besides, nobody can tell exactly when the old man may die. Indeed they are waiting for his death every hour—he is beyond eighty already. A most awful bore certainly. Ah ha! The old fool is unable to get up any more, he is not even able to strike anybody. If he cries out, nobody is afraid of him; but, at any rate, he has strength enough to pull the bell-rope, send for his steward, tell him to go to the office of the alispan there ferret out and bring back his last will and testament—and then he can dictate another will to his lawyer quite cosily at his ease."
[Footnote 1: Vice-lieutenant of the county.]
And in order to emphasize his words more terribly, he there and then gave a tug at the bell-rope.
Yet for all that nobody turned towards him; the lady kept dealing out the cards, the young girl continued working beads into her sampler, the governess went on reading, and the old spinster was still intent upon some delicate operation with her needle—just as if nobody had spoken a word.
In answer to the bell an ancient serving-man appeared in the doorway, and the old gentleman, after waiting a little to see from the countenances of those present (he could observe them in the mirror opposite) whether his allusion to his will had produced any effect, and finding no notice taken of it whatever, said in a sharp, petulant voice: "Louis!"
The servant approached the sofa and then stood still again.
This was the end of the awe-inspiring threat.
The old gentleman observed, or rather, suspected, some slight amusement in the company present.
"Miss Kleary!" he observed irritably, "don't you observe that Henrietta is looking out of the window again? I am bound, Miss, to direct your attention to the fact that I consider such a thing decidedly unbecoming in a young lady."
"Dear Grandpapa.....!" began the accused.
"Silence! I did not speak to Henrietta, I spoke to Miss Kleary. Miss Henrietta is still a child who understands nothing. I neither address her nor attempt to explain anything to her. But I keep Miss Kleary in this house, I pay Miss Kleary a princely salary, in order that I may have some one at hand to whom I can explain my educational ideas. Now my educational ideas are good; nay, Miss, I think I may even say that they are very good. I will therefore beg you to do me the favour to stick to them. I know what ought and what ought not to be allowed young girls; I know that....."
The young girl's face blushed beneath the reproachful look of the old tyrant, whilst the governess rose defiantly from her place, and in order that she might wreak her anger upon some one, industriously proceeded to pick holes in Henrietta's sewing and effectually spoil her whole day's work.
Thus, it will be perceived, only one person had the right to speak; the only right the other people had was not to listen to him.
But there was someone else in the background who had better rights than anybody, and this someone now began to hammer with his fists on the door, that very door at which the oldest and most trusty domestics hardly dared to tap—began, I say, to hammer with his fists and kick with his heels till everyone was downright scared.
This was the little grandson, the old gentleman's spoiled darling little Maksi.
"Why don't you let in little Maksi?" cried the old gentleman, when he heard him. "Open the door for little Maksi; don't you know that he is not tall enough to reach the door-handle? Why don't you let him come to me when he wants to come?"
At that moment the footman opened the door and the little family prince bounded in. It was a pale little mouldy sort of flower, with red eyes and a cornerless mouth like a carp, but with the authentic family nose and the appurtenances thereof, which took up so much room as to seriously imperil the prospects of the rest of the head growing in proportion. The little favourite was wearing a complete Uhlan costume, even the four-cornered chako was stuck on the side of his head; he was flourishing a zinc sword and grumbling bitterly.
"What's the matter with little Maksi? Has anybody been annoying him?"
Grandpapa succeeded at last in making out that on running out Maksi had tripped over his sword, that his tutor had wanted to take it away, that Maksi had thereupon drawn his weapon and made the aggressor's hand smart with it, and that finally he had fled for refuge to grandpapa's room as the only place where he was free from the persecutions of his instructors.
Grandpapa, in a terrible to do, began to question him: "Come here! Where did you hit yourself? On the head, eh! Let us see! Why, it is swollen up—quite red in fact! Put some opodeldoc on it! Clementina, do you hear?—some opodeldoc for Maksi!" So the family medicament had to be fetched at once; but Maksi, snatching it from the worthy spinster's hand, threw it violently to the ground, so that the whole carpet was bespattered with it.
Nobody was allowed to scold him for this, however, as grandpapa was instantly ready with an excuse: "Maksi must not be vexed," said he. "Does not Maksi wear a sword by his side already? Maksi will be a great soldier one of these days!"
"Yes," replied the lad defiantly, "I'll be a general!"
"Yes, Maksi shall be a general; nothing less than a general, of course. But come, my boy, take your finger out of your mouth."
The English governess here thought she saw an opportunity of insinuating a professional remark.
"He who would be a general, must, first of all, learn a great deal."
"I don't want to learn. I mean to know everything without learning it. I say, grandpapa, if you've lots of money, you will know everything at once without learning it, won't you?"
The old man looked around him triumphantly.
"Now that I call genius, wit!" cried he.
And with that he tenderly pressed the little urchin's head to his breast and murmured: "Ah! he is my very grandson, my own flesh and blood."
He was well aware how aggravated all the others would be at these words.
Meanwhile the footman was laying a table. This table was of palisander wood and supported by the semblance of a swan. It could be placed close beside the ottoman and was filled with twelve different kinds of dishes. All these meats were cold, for the doctor forbade his patient hot food. The old gentleman tasted each one of the dishes with the aid of his finger-tips, and not one of them pleased him. This was too salt, that was too sweet, a third was burnt, a fourth was tainted. He threatened to discharge the cook, and bitterly complained that as he did not die quickly enough for them, they were conspiring to starve him. They might have replied that he had ordered all these things himself yesterday; but nobody took the trouble to contradict him any longer, so gradually the storm died away of its own accord and the old man, turning towards Maksi, tenderly invited him to partake of the disparaged dishes.
"Come and eat with me, Maksi, my darling."
"That I will," cried the little horror, grabbing at everything simultaneously with both hands.
"Oh, fie, fie!" said grandpapa gently. "Take Maksi out for a ride and let the lacquey go with him instead of his tutor!" The old gentleman then pushed the little round table aside and signalled to the footman that he was to put all the dishes carefully away, as he should want to see them again on the morrow. The footman conscientiously obeyed this command—which was given regularly every day—and locked up all the dishes well aware that he would get a sound jacketting if he failed to produce a single one of them when required to do so.
The old man knew well enough that there was not a servant in the house who, for any reward on earth, would think of touching any food that had ever lain on his table; indeed, they held it in such horror that they used regularly to distribute it among the poor. In order therefore that the very beggars might have nothing to thank him for, he had the food kept till it was almost rotten before he let them have it. As for his own family, he had not dined at the same table with them for ten years.
It was certainly not a sociable family. For example, the old gentleman's widowed daughter, red-cheeked Madame Langai, did not exchange a single word with her father for weeks at a time. At first he had expected her to remain in the same room with him till nine o'clock every evening, dealing out cards for him or boring herself to death in some other way for his amusement. She endured it for a whole month without a word; but at last, one evening, at seven o'clock, she appeared before him in evening dress and said that she was going to the theatre.
Old Lapussa glared at her with all his eyes.
"To the theatre?" cried he.
"Yes, I have ordered a box."
"Really? Well, I hope you will enjoy yourself!"
The lady quitted him with a shrug. She knew that from that moment she would inherit a million less than her elder brother; but nevertheless she went to the theatre regularly every day, and never stirred from her box so long as there was any one on the stage who had a word to say.
The Lapussa family was of too recent an origin for the great world to take much notice of it, and the fame of its fabulous wealth went hand in hand with the rumour of a sordid avarice which was not a recommendable quality in the eyes of the true gentry. The Lapussas were, in fact, not of gentle blood at all, but simply rich. Madame Langai's elder brother, John, was notoriously the greatest bore in the town, whom nobody, from the members of his own family down to his coffee-house acquaintances, could endure for a moment. Only his father made much of him. For all his great wealth, he was very stingy and greedy; he even lent money at usury to his best friends. Our amusing little friend Maksi was this man's son. The slender, fanciful damsel, Henrietta, who appeared in that family like an errant angel specially sent there to be tormented for the sins of her whole race, was the orphan daughter of another son of old Lapussa, who had lost father and mother at the same time in the most tragical manner; they had both been drowned by the capsizing of a small boat on the Danube. Henrietta herself had only been saved with the utmost difficulty. She was only twelve years old at the time, and the catastrophe had had such an effect upon her nerves that ever afterwards she collapsed at the least sign of anger, and often fell a weeping for no appreciable cause. Since the death of her parents, who had loved her dearly, Henrietta had been obliged to live at her grandfather's house, where nobody loved anybody.
But no, I am mistaken. She had a brother, Koloman by name, who was a somewhat simple but thoroughly good-natured youth. He used to appear very rarely among his relations because they always fell foul of him. The poor fellow's sole fault was that he was in the habit of regularly selling his new clothes. Still, I am doubtful, after all, whether this can fairly be imputed to him as a fault at all, for although it was always being dinned into his ears that his family was immensely rich, he was never blessed with a penny to spend in amusing himself with his comrades, and therefore had to do the best he could to raise the wind. Another failing of Koloman's was that he would not learn Latin, and in consequence thereof he had to suffer many things. Old Lapussa and his son John indeed had no notion whatever of the Latin tongue. The former in his youthful days had never gone to school at all, because he was occupied in building up a business. The latter had not gone to school in his youth because by that time his people were already rich and he considered it beneath him. The consequence was that neither father nor son had a proper idea on the simplest subjects, except what they picked up on their travels. Still that was no reason why Koloman should not learn, but as the tutor had his hands full already with little Maksi, Koloman was obliged to go to the national school in order to become a wiser man than his forbears.
Poor Henrietta often slaved away for hours at a time with her younger brother sitting at the table by her side, helping him to struggle through the genders, declensions, conjugations, or whatever else the infernal things were called; and the end of it all was that, at last, she learnt to know Latin better than Koloman, and secretly translated all his exercises from Cornelius Nepos and the Bucolics of Virgil for him.
But we must not linger any longer over these Latin lessons, for a much more important event claims our attention—Mr. John is coming home, and we must hasten forward to admire him.
Mr. John Lapussa was a perfect prototype of the whole family. His extraordinarily lanky pinched figure seemed even lankier than it was by nature because he always carried his head so high: he peered down from that elevation upon humanity at large as if there was something the matter with his eyes which prevented him from properly raising the lids. In him the dimensions of the family nose were made still more remarkable by an inordinately tiny chin and thin compressed lips. His moustache was shaved down to the very corners of his mouth, only a little mouse-tail sort of arrangement being left on each side, which was twisted upwards and dyed black with infinite skill. His costume was elegant and ultra-refined, and only differed from the fashion in being extra stiff and tight-fitting. Moreover, all the buttons of his shirt and his waistcoat were precious stones, and he had a plenitude of rings on his fingers which he delighted to show off by ostentatiously adjusting his cravat in the course of conversation, or softly stroking the surface of his superfine coat.
Mr. John entered the room without looking at a soul, and paced up and down it with his hands behind his back. Then he suddenly caught sight of his father, kissed his hand and resumed his dignified saunter. It was evident that he was bursting for some one to speak and ask him what was the matter.
Clementina was the first to speak.
"Your honour!" said she.
"What is it?" he asked, lifting his head still higher.
"I have finished the embroidery for your shirt front which your honour was pleased to command."
His honour with a haughty curl of the lip condescended to glance down upon the proffered embroidery. I am afraid Clementina was a poor physiognomist, she might have noticed from his face how utterly indifferent he was to her and her embroidery, which he regarded with puckered eyes and screwed-up mouth.
"No good. Those flowers are too big; it is the sort of thing the Wallachian peasants stitch on to their shirts." And with that he took up Clementina's scissors from the work-table and deliberately snipped into little bits the whole of the difficult piece of work which the worthy woman had been slaving away at for a week and more, finally pitching it away contemptuously while she sat there and stared at him dumfoundered.
"John, John!" said the old man in mild remonstrance.
"To show me such rubbish when I am mad! When I am wroth! When I am beside myself with fury!"
"Why are you angry, and with whom?"
John went on as if he did not mean to tell the cause of his anger. He flung himself into an armchair, crossed his legs, plunged his hands into the depths of his pockets and then, starting up, began to pace the room again.
"I am furious."
"Then what's the matter?" enquired the old man anxiously.
John again flung himself into an armchair and cocked one leg over the arm of the chair: "It is all that good-for-nothing Hatszegi!" he cried. "The fellow is a villain, a scoundrel, a robber!"
"What has he done?"
"What has he done?" cried John, leaping to his feet again, "I'll tell you. Yesterday he sent word to me by his broker that he would like to buy those houses of ours in the Szechenyi Square which I have offered for sale. Wishing to save broker's expenses I went to see him myself at twelve o'clock. Surely that is the most convenient time for paying business calls. At least I have always supposed so. I entered his ante-chamber and there stood a flunkey. He told me I must wait! Told me forsooth—me, John Lapussa—that I must cool my heels in an ante-chamber, at an inn, to please that wretched Hatszegi. Very well. I waited. I sent him a message that I would wait. Meanwhile I found I could not sit down anywhere, for the rascal had piled dirty boots and brushes on all the chairs. Presently the rascal of a servant came back and told me that his master could not see me then, would I come back again in the afternoon—I, John Lapussa, forsooth! Absolutely would not speak to me, but told me to come again another time! Thou dog, thou wretched rascal! But wait, I say, that's all!"
At this the old man also grew excited.
"Why did you not box his ears?" cried he.
"I'll do it, and do it well. I'll not stand it. What! send a Lapussa packing! It cannot be overlooked. I shall immediately go and find two seconds and challenge him to a duel."
"Nay, John, don't do that! Don't even box his ears in the street, but give a street-porter ten shillings to cudgel him well as he comes out of the theatre; that will be best!"
"No, I will kill him. I will shed his blood. He who insults me in a gentlemanly manner must be shown that I can revenge myself like a gentleman. I will wipe off the score with pistols—with pistols I say."
The old man and the female members of the family were duly impressed by this bragging, or rather all except Madame Langai, who was getting ready for the theatre and took no notice of the general conversation.
Mr. John was much put out by her indifference. "Matilda," he asked, "what do you say? Ought I not to fight, after such an insult?"
Madame Langai answered the unavoidable question with a cold smile: "I would only say that if anyone angers you another time you had better expend your wrath upon him before dinner, for if you nurse your wrath till after dinner you spoil the whole thing."
Mr. John listened to her in silence and then resumed his promenade with his hands behind his back snorting furiously. Suddenly he snatched up his cap and rushed out.
"John, John, what are you going to do?" the old man called after him in a supplicating voice.
"You'll very soon see, I'll warrant you," and he banged the door behind him.
The old man turned reproachfully towards Madame Langai. "Why did you irritate him when he was mad enough already?" he cried. "What will you gain by his death? He has a son who will inherit everything, you know. Yes, everything will belong to little Maksi."
Madame Langai calmly went on tying her bonnet strings.
"I know what fiery blood he has," mumbled the old man. "When he is angry he will listen to nobody, and is capable of facing a whole army. We must prevent this duel somehow. And you are actually preparing to go to the theatre when things have come to such a pass? You are actually going to see a comedy!"
"The actor Ladislaus plays just the same parts on the stage as John does off the stage," replied Madame Langai bitterly. "And I am as little afraid of John's rhodomontade as I am of the result of stage duels. Don't be afraid! He'll come to no harm."
A lacquey now entered to announce that the coach was ready, and Madame Langai, adjusting her mantilla, went to the playhouse where the actors were, at least, amusing.
A NEW MODE OF DUELLING
Old Lapussa always liked to have under his eye, night and day, some one or other whom he could plague and worry. Till eight o'clock every evening he was fully occupied in tormenting the whole family. Then Madame Langai went to the theatre and Henrietta and the governess had to sit down at the piano in the large drawing-room till it was time to put the child to bed. But when Clementina and the domestics had had supper and there was no longer anybody else with him, the turn of the night nurse began.
The duties of a night nurse are never very enviable or diverting at the best of times, yet penal servitude for life was a fate almost preferable to being the nocturnal guardian of old Demetrius Lapussa. The unhappy wretch who was burdened with this heavy charge had to sit at Mr. Lapussa's bed from nine o'clock at night till early the following morning and read aloud to him all sorts of things the whole time. Old Demetrius was a very bad sleeper. The whole night long he scarcely slept more than an hour at a time. His eyes would only close when the droaning voice of some one reading aloud made his head dizzy, and then he would doze off for a short time. But at the slightest pause he would instantly awake and angrily ask the reader why he left off, and urge him on again.
The reader in question was a student more than fifty years old, who, time out of mind, had been making a living by fair-copying all sorts of difficult manuscripts. He was an honest, simple creature who, in his time, had tried hard to push his way into every conceivable business and profession without ever succeeding till, at last, when he was well over fifty, he was fortunate enough to fall in with an editor who happened to know that Demetrius Lapussa wanted a reader, and recommended the poor devil for the post. He knew Hungarian, Latin, and Slovack well enough to mix them all up together; German he could read, though he did not understand it, but this was not necessary, for he was not expected to read for his own edification.
This worthy man, then, grew prematurely old in reading, year out year in, aloud to Mr. Demetrius, one after another, all the German translations of French novels procurable at Robert Lempel's circulating library without understanding a single word of them. Mr. Demetrius had, naturally, no library of his own, for reading to him, in his condition, was pretty much the same as medicine, and who would ever think of keeping a dispensary on his own premises? I may add that the reader received free board and lodging and ten florins a month pocket-money for his services.
On that particular night when Mr. John flung out of the house in such a violent rage, Mr. Demetrius was particularly sleepless. I know not whether Monte Cristo, the first volume of which honest Margari happened to be reading just then, was the cause of this, or whether it was due to the old man's nervousness about the terrible things John was likely to do, but the fact remains that poor Margari on this occasion got no respite from his labours. At other times Margari did manage to get a little relief. Whenever he observed that Mr. Demetrius was beginning to draw longer breaths than usual he would let his head sink down on his book and fall asleep immediately till the awakened tyrant roused him out of his slumbers and made him go on again. But now he was not suffered to have a moment's peace.
Monte Cristo had already been sitting in his dungeon for some time when Madame Langai's carriage returned from the theatre. Then Mr. Demetrius rang up the porters to inquire whether Mr. John had also returned home. No, was the answer. At eleven o'clock Mr. John had still not returned. Meanwhile Monte Cristo's neighbour had traced the figure on the floor of the dungeon. Mr. Demetrius here demanded a fuller explanation of the circumstances. "How was that, Margari?" he enquired.
"I humbly beg your honour's pardon, but I don't understand."
"Very well, proceed!"
Every time a door below was opened or shut, Mr. Demetrius rang up the porter to enquire whether Mr. John had come in, to the intense aggravation of the porter, who appeared in the door of the saloon with a surlier expression and his hair more and more ruffled on each occasion, inwardly cursing the fool of a student who had not even wit enough to send an old man asleep, and envying the other servants who at least were able to sleep at night without interruption.
And still Margari went on reading.
By this time Monte Cristo had had himself sewn up in a sack and flung into the sea as a corpse.
"Would you have dared to have that done to you, Margari?" interrupted Mr. Demetrius.
"If I had a lot of money I might, begging your honour's pardon, but a poor devil like me is only too glad to live at any price," replied Margari, whose answer naturally had no relation whatever to the text, not a word of which he understood.
"You are a simple fellow, Margari; but go on, go on!"
Margari gaped violently, he would have liked to have stretched himself too, but he bethought him in time that his coat had already burst beneath his armpits, and he had no wish to make the rent still larger, so he let it alone and proceeded with his bitter labour.
By the time Monte Cristo had swum back to dry land, Margari's eyelids were almost glued to his eyes and still the old gentleman showed no sign of drowsiness. Mr. John's threat had kept Mr. Demetrius awake all night, and consequently had kept poor Margari awake too. Once or twice an unusually interesting episode excited the old man's attention, and for the time he forgot all about John's duel—for example, when Monte Cristo discovered the enormous treasure on the island—and he would then rouse up Margari and make him go and find a map and point out the exact position of Monte Cristo's island. Margari searched every corner of the sea for it, and at last looked for it on the dry land also without finding it. Tiring at length with the fruitless search he proposed, as the best way out of the difficulty, that he should write on the afternoon of the following day to Monsieur Alexander Dumas himself to explain to his honour where the island used to be and whether it still existed.
"What a blockhead you are," said the old man, "but go on, go on!"
Margari gave a great sigh and looked at the clock on the wall, but, alas! it was still a long way from six o'clock. At last, however, while he was still reading, the clock did strike six. Margari instantly stood up in the middle of a sentence, marked the passage with his thumb-nail so as to know at what word to begin again on the following evening, turned down the leaf and closed the book.
"Well! is that the end of it?" enquired Mr. Demetrius in angry amazement.
"I humbly beg your honour's pardon," said Margari with meek intrepidity, "there's nothing about reading after six in our agreement"—and off he went. Mr. Demetrius thereupon flew into a violent rage, cursed and swore, vowed that he would dismiss his reader on the spot, and as the morning grew lighter fell into a deep, death-like, narcotic sleep from which he would not have awakened if the house had come tumbling about his ears. When he did awake, about ten o'clock, his first care was to make enquiries about Mr. John. Then he sent the porter to the police station to inform the authorities that his son and Mr. Hatszegi, who were both staying at the Queen of England inn, were going to fight a duel, which should be prevented at all hazards. A police constable, at this announcement, flung himself into a hackney-coach and set off at full speed to make enquiries. Half an hour later a heyduke was sent back to the porter to tell him that either the whole affair must be a hoax, as nothing was known of a duel, or else that the two combatants must already be dead and buried, as not a word could be heard of either of them. Luckily, towards the afternoon, Mr. John himself arrived in a somewhat dazed condition, like one who has been up drinking all night. The members of the family were all sitting together as usual in Mr. Demetrius's room, listening in silence to his heckling, when the tidings of Mr. John's arrival reached him. Demetrius immediately summoned him. He sent back word at first that he was lying down to try to sleep, which was an absurd excuse for even the richest man to give in the forenoon; on being summoned a second time he threatened to box the porter's ears; only the third time, when Clementina was sent with the message that if he did not come at once, his sick father would come and fetch him, did he respond to the call and appear before them in a pet.
"Well, thou bloodthirsty man, what has happened? What was the end of it?"
"What has happened?" repeated John with monstrously dilated eyes. "What marvel do you expect me to relate?"
"Clementina, Miss Kleary, Henrietta, retire," cried the old man; "retire, go into the next room. These are not the sort of things that children should hear."
When they had all withdrawn except Madame Langai, Demetrius again questioned his son: "Now then, what about this affair, this rencontre with Hatszegi; did you challenge him, did you meet him?"
"Eh? Oh—yes! Naturally. Of course I sought him out, I have only just come from him. We have been making a night of it together at the Queen of England. I can honestly say that he is a splendid fellow, a gallant, charming gentleman. He has really noble qualities. I am going to bring him here this afternoon. You shall all see him. Even you will like him, Matilda. But now, adieu, I must really have a little sleep, we were drinking champagne together all night. Oh, he is a magnificent, a truly magnificent character."
Mr. Demetrius said not a word in reply, but he compressed his thin lips and wagged his head a good deal. Nobody made any observation. Mr. John was allowed to go to bed according to his desire. A little time after he had withdrawn, however, the old man said to Madame Langai: "What are you doing Matilda?"
"I am trying to guess a rebus which has just appeared in 'The Iris.'"
"Don't you think that what John has just said is rather odd?"
"I have not troubled my head about it one way or the other."
"I can see through it though. John wants to pay off Hatszegi in his own coin. He has invited him here this afternoon in order to keep him waiting in the ante-chamber, and then send him word that he can't see him till to-morrow. Oh! Jack is a sly lad, a very sly lad, but I can see through him. I can see through him."
* * * * *
Mr. John passed the whole afternoon in his father's room; he did not even go to his club. No doubt he was awaiting his opportunity for revenge. He amused himself by sitting down beside his niece, stroking her hand, admiring the whiteness of her skin, and, drawing the governess into the conversation, enquired how Henrietta was getting on with her studies, whether she had still much to learn in English and French, and whether she was not, by this time, quite a virtuoso at the piano. He insinuated at the same time that it would be just as well, perhaps, if she made haste to learn all that was necessary as soon as possible, because she was no longer a child, and when once a woman is married she has not very much time for study.
"By the way, Henrietta," he added suddenly, "have you chosen a lover yet?"
Henrietta was too much afraid of him even to blush at this question, she only glanced at him with timid, suspicious eyes and said nothing.
"Don't be afraid, sisterkin," continued Mr. John encouragingly. "I'll bring you such a nice bridegroom that even your grandpapa, when he sees him, will snatch up his crutches in order to go and meet him half-way." Here the old man growled something which John smothered with a laugh. "Yes, and if he won't give you up we'll carry you off by force."
Henrietta shuddered once or twice at her uncle's blandishments, like one who has to swallow a loathsome medicine and has caught a whiff of it beforehand.
The porter interrupted this cheerful family chat by announcing that his lordship Baron Hatszegi wished to pay his respects to Mr. Lapussa.
Mr. Demetrius immediately raised himself on his elbows to read from Mr. John's features what he was going to do. Would he tell the lacqueys to turn Hatszegi out of the house? or would he send him word to wait in the ante-chamber, as he himself had waited at Hatszegi's, and then put him off till the morrow? Oh! John would be sure to do something of the sort, for a very proud fellow was John.
But, so far from doing any of these things, Mr. John rushed to the door to meet the arriving guest and greeted him aloud from afar in the most obliging, not to say obsequious, terms, bidding him come in without ceremony and not make a stranger of himself. And with that he passed his arm through the arm of his distinguished guest and, radiant with joy, drew him into the midst of the domestic sanctum sanctorum and presenting him in a voice that trembled with emotion: "His lordship, Baron Leonard Hatszegi, my very dear friend!"
And then he was guilty of the impropriety of introducing his guest first of all to his father and his niece, simply because they happened to be the nearest, only afterward he bethought him of turning towards Matilda to introduce her, whereupon Matilda's face assumed a stony expression like that of the marble maiden in Zampa, to the great confusion of John, who felt bound to enquire in a half-whisper: "Why, what's the matter?"
"You dolt," she whispered back, "have you not learnt yet that the lady of the house should be introduced to her guests not last, but first?"
John's first impulse was to be shocked, his second was to be furious, but finally he thought it best to turn with a smile to Baron Hatszegi, who courteously helped him out of his embarrassment by observing: "It is my privilege to be able to greet your ladyship as an old acquaintance already. Many a time have I had the opportunity of secretly admiring you in your box at the theatre."
"Pray be seated, sir...!"
AN AMIABLE MAN
Baron Hatszegi was certainly a very amiable man. He had a handsome face full of manly pride, sparkling eyes, and a powerful yet elegant figure. He moved and spoke with graceful ease, bore himself nobly, picked his words—in short, was a perfect gentleman. Mr. Demetrius was quite taken with him, although Hatszegi hardly exchanged a word with him, naturally devoting himself principally to the widowed lady who played the part of hostess. What the conversation was really about nobody distinctly recollected—the usual commonplaces no doubt, balls, soirees, horse-racing. Henrietta took no part in the talk; Mr. John, on the other hand, had a word to say on every subject, and, although nobody paid any attention to him, he enjoyed himself vastly.
When Hatszegi had departed, John, with a beaming face, asked Madame Langai what she thought of the young man.
Instead of replying, Madame Langai asked what had induced him to bring him there.
"Well, but he's a splendid fellow, isn't he?"
"You said yesterday that he was a vagabond."
"I said so, I know, but it is not true."
"You said, too, that he was a robber."
"What! I said that? Impossible. I didn't say that."
Old Demetrius here intervened as a peacemaker.
"You said it, John, you did indeed; but you were angry, and at such times a man says more than he means."
"So far from being a robber or a vagabond," replied John, "he is one of the principal landowners in the Hatszegi district. How could I have said such things! He has a castle that is like a fortress. He is like a prince, a veritable prince in his own domains. He is just like a petty sovereign. I must have been downright mad to call him a vagabond. . . ."
"Yet, yesterday, you would have called him out," continued Madame Langai teasingly.
"Yes, I was angry with him then, but there are circumstances which may reconcile a couple of would-be duellists, are there not?"
"Oh, certainly, if a man is a man of business before all things, or has perhaps a valuable house or two on his hands."
"This has nothing to do with business or selling houses. If you must know," he continued, lowering his voice, "it is about something entirely different, but of the very greatest importance."
"Indeed?" returned Madame Langai, "a new Alexander the Great, I suppose, who has gone forth to conquer, and who has come to look not for a house, but for a house and home perhaps?"
She thought to herself that it was some adventurer whom her brother John would palm off upon her as a husband so as to get her away from the old man.
"Something of the sort," replied John. "Yes, you have guessed half—but the wrong half."
"I am glad to hear it."
"Ah!" put in the old man sarcastically, "Matilda will never marry again, I'm sure; she loves her old dad too much and feels far too happy at home to do that."
"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed John scornfully, "I did not mean Matilda, I was not thinking of her. Ho, ho, ho! Madame Langai imagines that she is the only person in the house whose hand can be wooed and won."
Dame Langai, with a shrug, looked incredulously round the room to see if there was anybody else who could possibly become the object of the baron's sighs. All at once her eyes accidentally encountered those of Henrietta, and immediately she knew even more than her brother John did. For she now clearly understood three things: the first was that Henrietta had taken in John's meaning more quickly than she had done, the second was that John had brought the suitor to the house on Henrietta's account, and the third was that Henrietta loathed the man.
She at once bade Miss Kleary give Henrietta an extra lesson on the piano in the adjoining room, and when they had taken her at her word and disappeared, she said to John in her usual quiet, mincing tone:
"You surely do not mean to give Henrietta to that man?"
"Why not, pray?"
"Because she is still a mere child, a mere schoolgirl; five years hence it will be quite time enough to provide her with a husband."
"But the girl is sixteen if she is a day."
"Yes, and delicate, sickly, and nervous."
"She will soon be well enough when she is married."
"And who, may I ask, is this suitor of yours. Is it not your duty, Demetrius Lapussa, as the girl's grandfather, to make the fullest enquiries about any man who may sue for your grand-daughter's hand? Is it not your duty, I say, to find out who and what he is and everything relating to him? For brother John may be very much mistaken in fancying his dear friend to be a wealthy and amiable nobleman. Whether he be amiable or not does not concern you personally, I know; but you ought certainly to know how he stands, for he may have castles and mansions and yet be up to the very ears in debt. In such a case if he is a nobleman so much the worse for you: for he will then have all the greater claim upon you. It may cost you dearly to admit a ruined baron into the bosom of your family."
John grew yellow with rage: "How dare you talk like that of anyone you do not know?" he cried.
"Then, do you know him any better?"
But here the old man intervened:
"You're a fool, John," said he. "Matilda is right. I will send for my lawyer, Mr. Sipos. He understands all about such things and will advise us in the matter. We must find out how the baron stands."
Meanwhile Hatszegi continued to call every day, dividing his attention equally between the widow and Henrietta; and at the end of a fortnight everyone was charmed with his personal qualities. It could not be denied that he was a delightful companion, always merry, lively, frank, and entertaining. He even made the old gentleman laugh aloud more than once; in fact Demetrius Lapussa grew quite impatient if Hatszegi was five minutes late. Mr. John was more delighted with him than ever. They took walks together, invariably drove in the same carriage to the park, and John was to be seen every night in the baron's box at the theatre, talking at the top of his voice so that everybody might become aware of the fact. Nay, he succeeded, through the courtesy of his new friend, in making the acquaintance of one or two magnates who subsequently lifted their hats to John in the street and thus gratified the dearest desire of his heart.
The enquiries made about Hatszegi also proved extremely satisfactory. He was certainly sound and solid financially, had never had a bill dishonoured, had no dealings with usurers, always paid cash and was never even in temporary embarrassment, as is so often the case with most landed proprietors when the crops fail. In fact, he seemed to have unlimited funds constantly at his disposal and to be scarcely less wealthy than old Lapussa himself.
So far then, everything was as it should be, and everyone was enchanted with him personally.
But what of Henrietta, the intended bride?
Oh! she was not even consulted in the matter; it is not usual, and besides she had neither mind nor will enough to have a voice in so important a matter as the disposal of her hand. Nay, she was not even told that she was going to be married. She only got an inkling of it from various phenomena that struck her from time to time, such as the polite attentions of the baron, the whispering of the domestics, the altered attitude towards her of the various members of the family—who now addressed her in the tone you employ when speaking to a baroness that is to be. And then there was Clementina's chatter! Clementina was now for ever talking of all the sewing and stitching that had to be done for the young lady, and of the frightful quantities of linen and lace and silk that were being made up into dresses and other garments. Six seamstresses were hard at work, she said, and she was helping them and yet they had to make night into day in order to get the necessary things ready in time.
So gradually they accustomed her to the idea of it, till at last one day Madame Langai took her aside and lectured her solemnly as to the duties of women in general and of women of rank in particular, pointing out at the same time how much such women owed to their own families for looking after and providing for them and expressing the hope that Henrietta would be duly grateful to the end of her days to her family—from all which she was able to gather that any opposition on her part would not be tolerated for a moment.
The day was already fixed for the exchange of the bridal rings, but the night before that day, Henrietta suddenly fell ill, and, what is more, dangerously ill, so that they had to run off for the family physician incontinently. The doctor was much struck by the symptoms of the illness and the first thing he did was to make the patient swallow a lot of milk and oil. Then he drove the servants headlong to the chemist's, and descending into the kitchen closely examined every copper vessel there by candle light, scolded the cook and the scullery maids till they were in tears, and terrified Clementina by telling her she was the cause of it all to the speechless confusion of the innocent creature. Not content with this, he made his way at once to Mr. Demetrius's room and there cross-examined everyone with the acerbity of an Old Bailey judge. What had the young lady been in the habit of eating and drinking? They must fetch what had been left over from her meals, he must see and examine everything. What had she eaten yesterday evening? Preserves? Then what sort of sugar was used, and where was the spoon? He insisted on seeing everything.
"But doctor," whined old Lapussa, "you surely don't mean to say that the child has been poisoned?"
"I do indeed, and with copper oxide too."
"How is that possible?"
"Why, simply because some of her food, preserve, for instance, has been allowed to stand too long in a copper or silver vessel and copperas has been developed."
The old man did not know enough of chemistry to understand how copperas could be developed from silver, but he was seriously alarmed.
"I hope there's no danger?" said he.
"It is a good job you sent for me when you did," replied the doctor, "for otherwise she would have been dead before morning. Copperas is a very dangerous poison, and if it gets into one's food in large quantities there is practically no antidote. A vigorous constitution, indeed, has a good chance of throwing it off; but, taking into consideration the state of the young lady's nerves and her general debility, I should say that her case was downright dangerous; anyhow she will be ailing for some time."
"Oh, doctor, doctor! and we all love Hetty so much, she is the very light of our eyes! I cannot tell you how anxious I am, on her account I should be so glad, doctor, if you could stay with her night and day and never leave the house. I would richly recompense you."
"I will do all I can, though I can't do that, and unless any unforeseen accident arise, I think I can answer for the result. But one thing I must insist upon, all these copper and silver vessels of yours must go to the devil. I'll come to-morrow and examine thoroughly the whole lot of them by daylight. The health of the family must not be endangered by such recklessness. And let me tell your honour something else. Are you aware that your honour's business-man, Mr. Sipos, who is only a lawyer and, therefore, can ill afford to do so in comparison with your honour, are you aware, I say, that he has on this very occasion sent all his copper vessels to the lumber-room?"
"On this occasion! what do you mean?" enquired the old man eagerly.
"I mean that I have just come from him and a similar case has happened in his house. His assistant—a fine young fellow, you know him, perhaps?—has also been poisoned by copperas. I have only this instant quitted him."
"What an odd coincidence."
"Very odd, indeed. Two exactly similar cases of poisoning at the same time and all because copper vessels were used and not properly cleaned."
"And how is the young man progressing? Is he out of danger?"
"Fortunately; although at the outset his was an even worse case than the young lady's. But then he is so much stronger. Well, good-bye! I will look in again to-morrow."
"But I should be so much easier, doctor, if you never left my grandchild's side."
"I would willingly do even that if I had not other patients in the town to attend to."
"Could you not entrust them to someone else?"
"Impossible. My reputation would be at stake. Besides I do not often have the chance of studying two such interesting parallel cases of poisoning at the same time."
"Very well, doctor. All I ask of you is to cure our little one."
"I hope to save the pair of them. And now I'll go up and have a look at her, and then I must return to Mr. Sipos's house. But I shall be here again in an hour or so."
And with that the old man had to be content.
During the whole course of Henrietta's illness he sent to enquire after his grandchild every hour. Clementina and an old maid-servant took it in turns to watch by her bedside. It was strictly forbidden to leave Henrietta alone for an instant, and Mr. Demetrius gave special orders that her brother Koloman was not to be allowed to approach within six paces of her bed because he was sure to bring cold air into the room, or convey to her surreptitiously something which she ought not to have and behave like a blockhead generally. So he was obliged to keep his distance.
At last when weeks and weeks had flown by, God and blessed nature helped the doctor to triumph over the effects of the poison. Henrietta slowly began to mend. She was still very weak, but the doctor assured them that she was quite out of danger and that the little capricious fancies of convalescence might now be safely humoured.
Madame Langai, in the doctor's presence, asked the sick girl whether there was anything in particular she would like, any food she fancied, any pastime she preferred.
The pale, delicate-looking child languidly cast down her eyes as if she would say: "I should like to lie in the grave—deep, deep, down." But what she really did say was: "I should like to read something. I feel so dull."
"That I cannot allow," said the doctor, "it would make your head ache, but I have no objection to someone reading to you some nice, amusing novel, Dickens's "Pickwick Papers," for instance, or a story of Marryat's, something light and amusing, I mean, which will not excite you too much."
"I should like that," said Henrietta and the choice fell on the "Pickwick Papers." But as the English governess complained that she could never read aloud for ten minutes at a time without growing hoarse and Clementina's eyes were too weak for any such office, it was suggested that Margari should be asked to submit to this extra sacrifice, and Clementina succeeded in persuading him to do so by promising him a liberal reward. So she brought him back with her and seated him behind a curtain so that he could not see the invalid (that would have been scarcely proper), and put the book into his hand.
But scarcely had Margari struggled through a few lines when Henrietta again became fidgety and said she longed for something to eat. The good-natured Clementina jumped with joy at this sign of returning appetite, and asked her what she would like and how she would like it. Henrietta thereupon directed her to have prepared a soup of such a complicated character (only the morbid imagination of an invalid could have conceived such a monstrosity), that Clementina felt obliged to descend to the kitchen herself to superintend its concoction herself, for it was certain that any servant would have forgotten half the ingredients before she could get down stairs.
Scarcely had Clementina shut the door behind her when Henrietta interrupted Margari's elocution.
"For Heaven's sake, come nearer to me," she said, "I want to speak to you."
The worthy man was so frightened by this unexpected summons that he had half a mind to rush out and call for assistance. He fancied that the young lady had become delirious—it was such an odd thing to ask him to draw nearer. But the sick girl, pressing together her trembling hands, looked at him so piteously that he could hesitate no longer but approached her bedside.
Henrietta did not scruple to seize the hand of the embarrassed gentleman.
"For God's sake, help me, my good Margari," she whispered. "I am plagued by an anxiety which prevents me from closing my eyes. Even here when I sleep it follows me into my dreams. You can free me from it. In you alone have I confidence. You suffer in this house as much as I do. You have no cause to torment or persecute me. Will you do what I ask you, my dear, good Margari?"
It occurred to Margari that the young lady was wandering in her mind, so to humour her, he promised to do whatever she asked him without hesitation.
"I will be very good to you, I will never forget all my life long the kindness you are about to do me."
"Your humble servant, Miss! but you have always been good to me. As far as I can remember, while the others took a delight in vexing me, you were the only one who always took my part. I don't forget that either. Command me! I will go through fire and water for you."
"Look, then!" said the girl, drawing from her bosom a little key attached to a black cord, "this is the key of my toilet casket. Open it and you will find a bundle of documents tied together with a blue ribbon, take them. All through my illness I trembled at the thought that they might ransack my things and find them, and when I came to myself I was worrying myself with the idea that I might perhaps have spoken about these papers in my delirium. Oh! it would have been frightful if my relations had seized them. Take them, quickly, before Clementina returns. I must conceal everything, even from her."
Margari accomplished the task with tolerable dexterity. He only broke the looking-glass while he was opening the casket, and that was little enough for him. There the documents were right enough, nicely tied together.
And then Henrietta seized his hand and pressed it so warmly and looked at him with her lovely, piteous, imploring eyes—a very lunatic might have been healed by such a look.
"I know you for an honourable man," continued she, "promise me not to look at these papers, but give them to my brother Koloman, he will know what to do with them. You will do this for my sake, dear Margari, will you not? It is just as though one of the dead were to come back to you from the world beyond the grave and implore you, with desperate supplications, to free its soul from a thought which rested upon it like a curse and would not let it rest in the grave."
Margari shuddered at these words. A corpse that returns from the world beyond the grave! This young gentlewoman certainly had a terrifying imagination. Nevertheless he swore by his hope of salvation that he would not bestow a glance upon the papers, but would give them to young Koloman.
"Hide them, pray!"
And indeed it was high time that he should bestow them in the well-like pocket of his long coat, for Clementina's steps were already audible in the adjoining chamber. When she appeared, however, he was sitting behind the curtain again, reading away as if nothing had happened.
When the clock struck four, at which time Koloman usually returned from school, Henrietta said to Margari that she had had enough of romance-reading for that day, but thanked him for his kindness and asked him to come again on the morrow if he would be so good. Margari protested that he should consider it the highest honour, the greatest joy. He would willingly read even English to her, if she liked, and without any special honorarium either, and then off he went to seek young Koloman.
Now it so happened that young Koloman did not come home at the usual time that day, and Margari after looking for him in vain became very curious as to the contents of the packet entrusted to him. What sort of mysterious letters could they be which Miss Henrietta was afraid of falling into the hands of her family. Hum! how nice it would be to find out!
The packet was tied up—naturally! But it was possible to undo and then retie the knots in just the same way as before, so that nobody would be any the wiser. To an honourable man, indeed, the mere knowledge that another's secret was concealed therein which he was bidden to guard would have been as invincible an impediment as unbreakable bolts and bars; but the worthy fellow reassured himself with the reflection that, after all, he was not going to tell anybody the contents of these documents, and he so very much longed to know what it could be that Miss Henrietta was so anxious to hide away, and old Lapussa would so much like to find out. As if he would ever betray the secret of such a nice, kindly creature to such an old dragon! Why, he would rather have his tongue torn out than betray it!—but know it he must and would!
So he locked himself up in his little room on the third storey, and very cautiously opened the bundle which was enwrapped in I know not how many folds of paper and greedily devoured the contents of the various documents.
But how great was his fury when, instead of the expected secrets, he found nothing but dull Latin exercises, wearisome rhetorical commonplaces on such subjects as the charms of spring and summer, the excellence of agriculture, the advantages of knowledge, the danger of the passions, and similar interesting themes. He was just about to tie the bundle up again, when it occurred to him to read one of these tiresome dissertations to the end, just to see what sort of style the young scholar affected. And now a great surprise awaited him, for he found that after the first five or six lines the theme suddenly broke off and there followed something altogether different, which though also written in the Latin tongue had nothing whatever to do, either with the beauties of spring or the excellencies of agriculture, but was, nevertheless, of the most interesting and engrossing character.
Now, indeed, he read every one of the exercises from beginning to end, and, when he had done so, he clearly perceived that if old Demetrius Lapussa had very particular reasons for ferreting out these things, Miss Henrietta had still greater reason for concealing them.
After having neatly tied up the packet again, he bethought him what he had better do next. Miss Henrietta had confided the secret to his safe-keeping, but Mr. Demetrius had commanded him to keep an eye upon Koloman and his Latin exercises—which of them had the best right to command in that house? But was it right to divulge a secret? Ah! that was another question. It is true that, as a general rule, it is wrong to betray secrets; yet, it is nevertheless true, that to betray a secret that ought to be known is at least justifiable. Moreover, was it not a Christian duty to let the grandfather know as soon as possible what extraordinary things his granddaughter was turning over in her noddle? And finally—there was money in it!—good solid cash! If old Lapussa did not choose to pay a price for it, and a liberal price too, he should be told nothing at all and Margari would show the old miser that he had a man of character to deal with. For after all poor Margari had to live, and this was worth as much as a thousand florins to him or its equivalent anyhow. Surely Miss Henrietta could not be so unreasonable as to expect poor Margari to chuck such a piece of good fortune out of the window, especially as she had given him nothing herself.
At that moment someone knocked at the door and enquired whether Mr. Margari was there.
Margari was so frightened that he bawled out: "No, I am not!"—so of course he was obliged to open the door, but he concealed the packet of letters in his pocket first.
It was the lacquey who came to ask whether Mr. Margari was aware that it was past seven o'clock; he must come and read to the old gentleman.
Margari could not endure to hear the domestics speaking to him familiarly.
"Seven o'clock! What do you mean?" said he. "Am I bound to know when it is seven o'clock? Am I a clockmaker or a bell-ringer? If your master wants me to know what a clock it is, let him send me, not a lacquey, but a gold repeater watch!"
And salving his wounded dignity with these and similar effusions, Margari trotted alongside the lacquey to the room of Mr. Demetrius, to whom he immediately notified the change in the situation by sinking down into a soft and cosey arm-chair instead of sitting down on the edge of the hard leather-chair, expressly provided for him.
Demetrius measured him from head to foot with his terrible eagle eyes and observed in an even more stridently moral voice than usual: "Well, Margari, when are we going to have our novel reading?"
"We will have our reading presently, but it won't be a novel to-day."
"What do you mean, sir?"
"I humbly beg to remind your honour that you were pleased to commission me to lay hands upon certain Latin exercises of your grandson Koloman. I humbly beg to inform you that they are now in my possession."
"Oh!" said old Lapussa, with a forced assumption of sang froid, "you may give them to me to-morrow, I will look them through."
"Crying your honour's pardon, they are in Latin."
"Well, I can get someone to look them through for me."
"I beg humbly to represent that it would not be well to put them into anybody's hands, for strange things are contained therein."
"What!" cried the old man angrily, "you don't mean to say you have looked into them?"
"Yes, I have read them all through."
"I did not tell you to do that."
"No, but you were graciously pleased not to forbid me to do so. Now, I know everything. I know the cause of the young lady's illness. I know why she does not wish to become the wife of Count Hatszegi. Nay, I even know what will happen in case she does. I know all that I say—and here it is in my pocket."
"And what presumption on your part to read other people's letters!"
"I beg your honour's pardon, but it is not presumption; I only wanted to know the value of the wares I have obtained for your honour. I wanted to know whether they were worth one florin, two florins, a hundred florins, a thousand florins, lest you should do me the favour to say to me: 'look, ye, Margari, my son, here are some coppers, go and drink my health!'—and so get the better of me."
"You are becoming impertinent! Do you want me to ring for the footman?"
"Pray do not give yourself the trouble! If you are determined to take the documents away from me by force I will fling them into the fire that is burning there on the hearth before the footman can come in and there will be an end to them."
"Then it is money you want, eh? How much?"
This question made Margari still more bumptious.
"How much do I want? A good deal, a very good deal, I can tell you. In fact I cannot tell at present how much."
But then he suddenly reassumed his obsequious cringing mien and added: "I tell you what, your honour, procure me some petty office at Count Hatszegi's. I don't care what it is, so long as I get a life-long sinecure—suppose we say his bailiff, or his librarian, or his secretary? A single word from your honour would do it."
An idea suddenly occurred to Mr. Demetrius.
"Very good, Margari, very good. So it shall be. I give you my word upon it—you shall be Hatszegi's secretary."
"But it must be life-long. I humbly beg of you, it must be till the term not of his but of my natural life."
"Yes, yes, till the term of your natural life."
"But if he won't have it?"
"I'll pay you myself. You shall receive your regular salary from me without including whatever you may get over and above from him. Will you be satisfied with a yearly salary of three hundred florins with your board and keep?"
At these words Margari's breath failed him. It was not without difficulty that he put the rapacious question: "Will your honour do me the favour to give me this promise in writing?"
"Certainly! Bring writing materials and I will dictate it to you on the spot."
And so an agreement was duly drawn up whereby Mr. Margari, in consideration of a yearly salary of 300 florins to be punctually sent to him at the beginning of every quarter, undertook in his capacity of secretary to Baron Hatszegi, to keep his Honour Demetrius Lapussa informed of all that he saw and heard at the residence of that gentleman, Henrietta's future husband, and this obligation of maintaining Margari was to be transferred on the death of Mr. Demetrius to his son John. And no doubt Mr. Demetrius knew very well what he was about.
This document signed and sealed, Mr. Margari, with the greatest alacrity, produced the Latin exercises in question, first of all, however, respectfully kissing the hand of his patron.
It took till midnight to read and translate all these documents one by one. Mr. Demetrius was very well satisfied with the result, that is to say so far as concerned the fidelity of the translation,—with the tenor of the original text he had not the slightest reason to be pleased.
When, shortly after midnight, these revelations were concluded, Mr. Demetrius commanded Margari to go up into his room and have a complete translation of all this Latin rigmarole written down in honest Hungarian by the morning and to encourage him in his task he gave him two guldens and an order on the butler for as much punch as he could drink. By the morning all the punch was drunk, but the translation also was finished, to the tune of bacchanalian songs which Margari kept up with great spirit all night long.
* * * * *
Next day, punctually at the appointed hour, the lawyer, Mr. Sipos, appeared at the house of the Lapussas, with the necessary documents neatly tied up with tape, under his arm as usual; he was not like our modern lawyers who carry their masterpieces in portfolios as if they are ashamed of them. The only persons in the reception room besides the old man, were Madame Langai and Mr. John. Henrietta, still an invalid, had been allowed to take a stroll to the woods near the town in order to visit her favourite flowers once more and possibly take leave of them for ever. She had received no invitation-card for this lecture. Why, indeed, should a bride know anything of her bridegroom's biography before marriage! The lawyer took his place at the table, untied his pile of documents and began to read.
It appeared from these documents that the founder of the Hatszegi family, the great grandfather of the present baron, was one Mustafa, who had been a Defterdar at Stamboul, and had used his unrivalled opportunities for making money so well that he found it expedient to fly from Jassy to Transylvania, where he made haste to get baptized and naturalized. His son, now an Hungarian nobleman, cut a fine figure at court and gallantly distinguished himself in the Turkish wars against his former compatriots, his exploits winning for him the estate of Hidvar and the title of baron. His son again was a miser of the first water who could be enticed neither to court nor into the houses of his neighbours. He was continually scraping money together and was not over particular in the choice of his scraper. By adroit chicanery he acquired possession of the gold mines of Verespatak, which he exploited with immense advantage, and by means of money lending and mortgages got into his hands the vast estate of Hatszegi in the counties of Hunyad and Feher, so that when he died it took thirty heavy wagons to convey his ready money in gold and silver alone from the Vadormi caverns, where he had concealed it to the castle of Hidvar, which his only son, Leonard, chose as his residence after his father's death. All these details were certified by unimpeachable documents in schedules B. C. and D.
[Footnote 2: The chief of the financial department in the Turkish vilagets.]
Moreover, the blood of many nationalities circulated in the veins of Baron Leonard. The Defterdar himself was a Turk of Roumelian origin, whose only son was the child of his Hindu concubine. He again married the daughter of a Polish countess at the court of Vienna. The wife of Baron Leonard's father was a wallachized Hungarian lady, whom he married for her wealth. It was not wonderful, therefore, if the noble baron possessed the qualities of five distinct races. Thus he had something of the voluptuousness of the Turk, the ostentation of the Hindu, the flightiness of the Pole, the foolhardiness of the Hungarian, and the obstinacy of the Wallach.
"For, I speak of his faults first," the lawyer proceeded, "because I consider that they outweigh his good qualities. That the baron is a rich man is evident from the accounts and inventories classed under schedule E; that the baron is a handsome man is evident from the photograph under schedule H; that the baron is physically sound is clear from the certificates annexed to schedules I and K, one of which is supplied by his physician and the other by his hunting comrades. Those who require nothing from a man save health, wealth, strength, and beauty, will of course consider him fit and proper to make a woman happy. Yet having regard to the following facts (1) that the aforesaid baron is not merely unstable in love affairs but capricious to the verge of eccentricity, and a winebibber and gourmand to boot; (2) that he is as vain as an Indian prince who takes unto him a wife for the mere pomp and show of the thing; (3) that he is violent and brutal, sparing nobody in his sudden fits of passion and, as the documents testify, has frequently inflicted mortal injuries on those who have come in his way while he was in an ill-humour; (4) that he has an odd liking for rowdy adventures, which do not reflect much credit upon him; and (5) that, according to the whispers of those nearest to him there is a strange mystery pervading his whole life, inasmuch as mysterious disappearances, which nobody can make head or tail of, occupy an incalculable number of his days and weeks which remain unaccounted for, and make a pretty considerable hiatus in every year of his life—taking all these things into consideration, I am constrained to give it as my opinion that I do not consider such a man a fit and proper husband for such a tender, sympathetic young lady as the Miss Henrietta in question, and let the world if it likes consider such a match as the greatest piece of good fortune imaginable, I, for my part, would nevertheless call it a calamity to be avoided at any price. And now would you do me the honour to examine the original documents I have brought with me as exhibits in corroboration of my statements—though I would mention," he quickly added, perceiving that Madame Langai had greedily clutched hold of them, "that among those documents there are sundry by no means suited for a lady's perusal."
"When I come across any such I will pass them over," said she. Of course these were the very passages she proceeded to search for straight away.
Meanwhile Mr. Demetrius also had drawn a packet of papers from underneath the cushions of his sofa and handed them to Mr. Sipos.
"Then you do not advise me to give Henrietta to Baron Hatszegi to wife? Good! And now, perhaps, while we run through the exhibits and schedules, perhaps you'll be so good as to cast your eye over these papers. I don't think they will bore you."
These documents, by the way, were the Latin documents discovered by Mr. Margari—in natura.
Mr. John was marching pettishly up and down the room, and Madame Langai was reading her documents with the greatest attention so that nobody observed the surprise, the confusion reflected in the countenance of the lawyer as he looked through the fatal Latin manuscripts. He kept shaking his head and twisting his moustache right and left, fidgeted in his armchair, and the beads of perspiration which stood out on his forehead gave him enough to do to wipe them away with his pocket-handkerchief; at last he had read the papers, and then he laid the whole bundle on the table and stared silently before him like one whose reason for the moment had no counsel to give him.
Just about the same time Madame Langai had completed the perusal of her documents, and now she too seemed to be in an extreme state of agitation. During the course of her reading, she had been unable to restrain herself from exclaiming at intervals: "the monster! the scoundrel!"
Mr. Demetrius had been amusing himself all this time by carefully observing the various mutations of expression in the faces of the readers, which certainly afforded considerable entertainment to an onlooker with any sense of humour.
When every document had produced its expression, he remarked in a soft gentle voice: "Well, my daughter, what do you think of the affair?"
Madame Langai clapped to her eyeglass and, with the air of one who had made up his mind once for all, replied instantly: "I would not allow a decent chambermaid to become Baron Hatszegi's wife, let alone a Henrietta Lapussa."
"And what is your opinion, Mr. Lawyer?" enquired the old man turning to Mr. Sipos.
"I?" replied the honest man, visibly perturbed, with a voice full of emotion: "I would advise that the young lady should be married to the baron as quickly as possible."
Madame Langai regarded him with wide-open eyes.
"What! After all that is in these papers?"
"No, after all that is in those other documents."
"What are they?" cried Madame Langai pouncing upon them incontinently and extremely vexed, the next moment, to find them all written in Latin. She perceived that they were Koloman's exercises, and that was all. She did not understand their connection with the case in point.
"I'll take those documents back please," said old Demetrius, stretching out a skinny hand towards them. "They will be of use to us though I have a translation of them besides. Then, you think, Mr. Lawyer, it will be as well to marry Henrietta to the baron, eh? Very well! Let me add that on the day when Henrietta goes to the altar with Baron Leonard, I will make you a present of all this scribble. Till then I shall require them. Do you understand?"
Mr. Sipos was completely beaten; you might have knocked him down with a feather. He had never been so badly worsted in his professional capacity. Madame Langai would have besieged him with questions, but he avoided her, put on his hat and departed.
Madame Langai thereupon turned to her father: "What is the cause of this wondrous change?" she cried. "What secrets do those miraculous papers contain?"
Mr. Demetrius tucked the documents in question well beneath him and replied: "They contain secrets the discovery whereof will be a great misfortune and yet a great benefit to the parties concerned."
"Have they any connection with Henrietta's wedding?"
"They have a direct bearing thereupon, and, indeed, necessitate it!"
"Poor girl!" sighed Madame Langai.
* * * * *
Mr. Sipos passed by his own dwelling three times before he knew that he had reached home, so confused was he by what he had just learnt. When he did get inside the house he walked for a long time up and down his consulting room as if he were trying to find a beginning for a business he would very much have liked to be at the end of. At last he gave the bellrope a very violent pull and told the clerk who answered the bell to send him his assistant, Mr. Szilard, at once.
Szilard appeared on the very heels of the messenger. His was one of those faces which women never forget. There was ardent passion in every feature and the large flaming black eyes, which spoke of courage and high enthusiasm, harmonized so well with the wan hue of the pallid face.
"Well, my dear fellow, do you feel quite well again now?" asked Mr. Sipos in a tone of friendly familiarity; "did the doctor call to see you to-day?"
"I have no need of him, there's nothing the matter with me."
"Nay, nay! Not so reckless! You have been working again, I see. You know the doctor has forbidden it."
"I only work to distract my thoughts."
"You should seek amusement rather. Why don't you mix in society like other young men? Why don't you frequent the coffee-houses and go to a dance occasionally? Why, you slave away like a street-porter! Young blood needs relaxation."
"Oh, I am all right. My dear uncle, you are very kind, but you worry about me more than I deserve."
"That is my duty, my dear nephew. Don't you know that your poor father confided you to my care on his death-bed, bade me be a father to you. Don't you remember?"
"I do," replied the young man, and catching hold of his guardian's hand he pressed it, murmuring in a scarcely audible voice: "You have indeed been a second father to me!"
But Mr. Sipos tore his hand passionately from the young man's grasp and said in a somewhat rougher tone: "But suppose your dead father were to say: 'That is not true! You have not watched over my son as a father should! You have lightly left him to himself. He was in danger and you were unaware of it. He hovered on the edge of the abyss and you were blind and saw nothing. And if God and my dead hand had not defended him, he would have become a suicide and you knew it not—wherefore?'"—
The young man trembled at these words, he grew even paler than before and gazed with a look of stupefaction at his chief. Then the old man approached him, and took him by the hand as if he would say: "I am going to scold you, but fear nothing. I am on your side."
"My dear Szilard," said he, "don't you recollect that when you were a little child and did anything you should not have done, and your father questioned you about it, did he not always say to you: 'when you have done wrong and are ashamed to confess it, keep silence! press your teeth together! but don't lie, don't deny it, never think of taking refuge behind any false excuse, for your name is Szilard, and cowardice does not become the bearer of such a name!' You understood him. You acted as he would have had you act. And now I also would remind you once more that you were christened Szilard and I ask you therefore to listen calmly to what I am about to say to you. Don't interrupt, don't attempt to deceive me. If you don't want to answer my questions, simply shake your head! And now sit down, my son! You are still barely convalescent. Your head is weak and what I have to say to you might very well make it reel again."