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It is the red dawn of a Whitsun Day, and a real dawn it is. Very early, soon after the first cock-crow, a band of brown musicians began marching along the roads of Nagy-Kun-Madaras, and in front of them, with a long hazel-wood wand in his hand, strutted a sworn burgher of the town, whose face seemed full of angry dignity because he was engaged on an important official function before ever a drop of pálinka had crossed his lips.
The worthy sworn burgher was honourably clad in blue, which well becomes a man in his official capacity; his spiral hat was adorned by a couple of large peonies in full bloom; in his button-hole was a posy of pinks and vine leaves; his silk vest had silver buttons; his face was red, his moustache pointed, his boots shaggy and spurred. He kept raising his feet as gingerly as if he were walking on eggs, and not for all the world would he have looked on either side of him, still less upon the gipsy minstrels behind his back; only when he came in front of the door of any burgher or town councillor he would signify, by raising his stick, that they were to walk more slowly, while the trumpets blared all the louder.[Pg 59]
Everywhere the loud music aroused the inhabitants of the streets. Windows and blinds were thrown open and drawn up, and the young women, covering their bosoms with aprons, popped their heads out and wished Mr. Andrew Varju a very good morning. But Mr. Andrew Varju recognized nobody, for he was now the holder of a high office which did not permit of condescension.
But now he reached the houses of the civic notabilities, and here he had to go indoors, for he had particular business with them. This particular business consisted of a drink of pálinka, which awaited him there, and whose softening effect was visible on his face when he came back again.
Now, this was no joke, for Master Jock had the amiable habit of keeping tame bears in his courtyard, which devour a man without the slightest regard to his official position; or the poor man might stray among the watch-dogs, and be torn to ribbons. Fortunately, however, on this occasion a red-liveried menial was lounging about the gate, from whom it was possible to get a peaceful answer.
Mr. Varju trotted on further. He had now to report himself to their worships at the community-house, which he accomplished without any beating about the bush by simply saying, "I have done everything."
"It is well, Mr. Varju."
In the worshipful community-room, hanging in[Pg 60] long rows on the walls, were the painted effigies of the local and civic celebrities, with room enough between for the arms of these defunct patrons, baillies, curators, and charity-founders also. On the table were tomes of tremendous bulk, pressed down by a large lead inkstand. The floor beneath the table was nicely covered with ink-blots - it was there that the pens were usually thrown.
The bell of early dawn was only now beginning to ring, and yet their worships were already assembled in the room, with their elbows planted in a circle all round the long table. The judge presided - a worthy, stout man.
Near the door stood a group of young men in short, strong, baggy knee-breeches and broad-buttoned pelisse-like dolmans. Every one of them had a bright kerchief in his button-hole, and spurred boots upon his feet.
Prominent amongst all the youths stood the Whitsun King of the year before. He was a tall, lanky stripling, with a large hooked, aquiline nose, and a long moustache triply twisted at the ends and well stiffened with wax. His neck was long and prominent and burnt black by the sun where it was not protected by his shirt. Below his shirt it looked as though it had been cut out of another skin. His dress was different to that of the common folks. Instead of linen hose, he wore laced trousers tucked into boots of Kordovan leather from which long tassels dangled down. The sparkling copper clasp of his broad girdle was visible beneath his short silken vest. A bright kerchief peeped out from every pocket of his dolman, and was tied at one corner to his buttons; and his fingers were so swollen with hoop and signet-rings that he could scarce bend them. But what distinguished the youth more than anything else was a large umbrageous wreath on the top of his head. The young girls had twined it out of[Pg 61] weeping-willow leaves and flowers in such a way that the pretty chains of pinks and roses flowed a long way down the youth's shoulders like long maidenhair, leaving only his face free, and thus forming a parting on both sides.
And it appeared from the register that Martin, during the year of his Whitsun Kingship, had cost the community seventy-two firkins of wine, and more than a hundred heads broken for fun. He had also made an innkeeper quite a rich man by smashing all his glasses every week, which the town paid for.
"Why should they let themselves be befooled?"
"Nobody has ever caught me."
"I know this much, that it does not come out of the coffers of the town, but out of the pockets of our dear father, the noble John Kárpáthy, whose worthy phiz I see hanging up on the wall yonder. He it is who has presented a sum of money to the community to keep up our old customs, and to improve the breed of our horses by gathering together all our young riders, in order that they may run races with one another. I also know that whoever proves to be the victor on that occasion has the privilege of getting drunk gratis at every hostelry in the town, while every landlord is bound to look after his horses, and whatever damage they may do they are not to be impounded, but the sufferer has to make good the damage for not looking after them better. Besides that, he has the free run of all festivities and junketings that may be going on; and if sometimes, in the exuberance of high spirits, he knocks any one about a bit, he is not to be punished either by corporal chastisement or imprisonment."
"Come, come, Martin!" said the judge, reprovingly. "Bragging does not become a young man. You have now got so accustomed to this sort of life that you'll find it a little difficult to fall into the ranks again, drink wine that you've paid for,[Pg 63] and be punished for your offences if to-day or to-morrow you are deposed from your Whitsun Kingship."
The councillors also perceived that the Whitsun King had made a mistake in answering so rashly, but as it would have been unseemly to have offended the dignity of so considerable a personage, they devoted themselves exclusively to the preparations for the entertainment.
Four barrels of wine, each of a different sort, were piled upon waggons; another waggon was full of freshly baked white rolls; fastened behind the waggons by their horns were the couple of yoke oxen that were going to be slaughtered.
"That's not the right way of going about it!" cried Martin. It was not his natural voice, but he was so accustomed to a peremptory tone now that he could use no other. "We want more pomp here. Who ever heard of the festal oxen being tied to a cart's tail? Why, the butcher ought to lead the pair of them by the horns, one on each side, and you ought to stick lemons on the tips of their horns, and tie ribbons round them!"
The people, after a short religious service, made their way towards the fields. In front trotted two[Pg 64] sworn burghers with ribbon-bedizened copper axes in their hands; after them came a cart with the gipsy musicians, roaring out Martin's song as if they meant to shout the heavens down. Immediately upon their heels followed two gaily tricked-out oxen, led by a couple of bare-armed butcher's lads; and then came the provision-waggons; and last of all the wine-carts, with sturdy young bachelors astride every barrel. Then followed Mr. Varju. Fate had raised him still higher, for he was now sitting on horseback, holding a large red banner, which the wind kept flapping into his eyes every moment. From the satisfied expression of his face he evidently thought to himself that if Martin was the Whitsun King, he himself was at least the Whitsun Palatine.
Last of all came the Whitsun King. His horse was not exactly beautiful, but it was a large, bony beast, sixteen hands high, and what it wanted in figure was made up to it in gay trappings and ribbons woven into its mane; its housings too were of fox-skin. Martin did not ride badly. He rolled about a bit, it is true; but this was due, not so much to anything he had taken at breakfast, as to his usual habit of swaggering; indeed, for the matter of that, he sat as firmly in his saddle as if he had grown to it.
On both sides of him trotted a couple of burghers with drawn swords, who had to look well after themselves all the time, for Martin's horse, whenever he perceived any other horse half a head in front of him, would bite at it till it screamed again.
The rear was brought up by a crush of carriages and carts, raising clouds of dust in their efforts to[Pg 65] overtake the horses in front, adorned with green branches and crammed with merry holiday-folks with bright, streaming neckerchiefs.
At that moment the report of a mortar announces that the prime patron of the festivities, the rich nabob, Master Jock, has departed from his castle. The crowd takes up its position in the cemetery and the gardens adjoining. The wary horsemen stand out in the open; some of them make their horses prance and curvet to show their mettle, and lay bets with one another. Shortly afterwards a cloud of dust arising from below the gardens declares that Master Jock is approaching. No sooner are the carriages visible than they are welcomed by a thundering huzzah, which presently passes over into peals of merry laughter. For Master Jock had hit upon the joke of dressing the gipsy Vidra in a splendid costume of cloth of gold, and making him sit in the family state-carriage drawn by four horses, while he himself came huddled up in a common peasant-cart immediately afterwards, and the honest country-folks loudly applauded the gold-bedizened costume till they perceived that there was only a gipsy inside it, whereupon the laughter grew louder still, which greatly amused the good gentleman.
With him came, besides his court jesters, those of his boon companions whom he liked the best. Number one was Miska Horhi, the owner of an estate of five thousand acres or so at the other end of the kingdom, who would skip over to his crony in March and stay till August, simply to ask him who he thought would be the next vice-lord-lieutenant of the county, leaving word at home that the crops were to be left untouched, and nothing was to be done till he returned. Number two was the famous Laczi Csenkö, the owner of the finest stud in the Alföld, who, rather than tire his own beautiful horses, preferred to go on foot,[Pg 66] unless he could drive in somebody else's conveyance. Number three was Lörincz Berki, the most famous hunter and courser in the county, who told falsehoods as glibly as if he lied from dictation. Number four was Friczi Kalotai, who had the bad habit of instantly purloining whatever came in his way, whether it were a pipe, a silver spoon, or a watch. Nevertheless, this habit of his was not without its advantages, for whenever his acquaintances lost anything, they always knew exactly where to look for it, and would simply seize him by the neck and turn out his pockets, without offending him the least bit in the world. Last of all came Bandi Kutyfalvi, the most magnificent tippler and swash-buckler in the realm, who, in his cups, invariably cudgelled all his boon companions; but he had the liquid capacity of a hippopotamus, and nobody had ever seen him dead-drunk in his life.
On the arrival of these distinguished guests, the brown musicians blew a threefold flourish with their trumpets, and the principal jurors measured the racecourse, at one end of which they stationed Mr. Varju with a red flag: this was the goal. At the other end the horsemen were arranged in a row, having previously drawn their places by lot, and so that the gentry might survey the race from their carriages in the most comfortable manner possible. The course was a thousand paces in length.
Master Jock was just about to signify, by a wave of his gold-headed cane, that the mortars were to be fired - the third report was to be the signal for the race to begin - when far away on the puszta a young horseman was seen approaching at full tilt, cracking his whip loudly, and galloping in the direction of the competitors. On reaching the two jurors - and he was not long about that - he reined up, and, whipping off his cap, briefly expressed the wish to compete for the Whitsun Kingship.[Pg 67]
"Don't ask me who or what I am. If I am beaten I shall simply go on my way, but if I win I shall remain here," was all that the jurors could get in answer to their questions. Nobody knew the youth. He was a handsome, ruddy young fellow of about six and twenty, with a little spiral moustache twisted upwards in betyár fashion, flowing curly locks gathered up into a top-knot, black flashing eyes, and a bold expressive mouth, slight of build, but muscular and supple. His dress was rustic, but simple almost to affectation; you would not have found a seal on his white bulging shirt, search as you might, and he wore his cap, with a tuft of meadow-sweet in it, as gallantly as any cavalier.
Wherever he might have got the steed on which he sat, it was a splendid animal - a restive Transylvanian full-blood, with tail and mane long and strong reaching to the ground; not for an instant could it remain quiet, but danced and pranced continually.
At last the signal-guns were fired. At the first thundering report the steeds began to rear and plunge; at the second they grew quite still, alertly pricking up their ears; one or two of the old racers slightly pawed the ground. Then the third report sounded, and the same instant the whole row plunged forward into the arena.
Five or six immediately forged ahead of the rest. These were the more impetuous horsemen, who are wont to spur their horses to the front at the outset, only to fall behind afterwards: among them was the last-comer also. The Whitsun King was in the centre group; now and then he snapped his fingers, but as yet he had not moved his whip. Only when three hundred paces had been traversed did he suddenly clap his spurs to his horse's flanks,[Pg 68] lash out with his whip, utter a loud cry, and in three bounds was ahead of the others.
Then, indeed, began a shouting and yelling and cracking of whips. Every horseman lay forward on the neck of his horse, caps fell, capes flew, and in mid-course every one fancied he was going to win. One steed stumbled beneath his rider; the rest galloped on.
From the carriages it was easy to see how the Whitsun King was galloping along among the rest, his long chaplet of flowers streaming in the wind behind him. One by one he overtook those who were galloping in front of him, and as often as he left one of them behind he gave him a crack with his whip, crying derisively, "Wire away, little brother!"
Martin hastened after him likewise. His horse was longer in the body, but the other's was as swift as the wind. And now only two hundred paces were between them and the goal. The youth looked back upon his competitor with a confident smile, whereupon the gentlemen in the carriages shouted, "Hold fast!" which warning applied equally to both competitors. Master Jock actually stood up to see better, the contest had now become exciting.
"And now he's laying on the whip!" cried he. "Something like, eh! And now he gives his horse the spur! One lash, and it flies like the storm! What a horse! I'd give a million for it; and how the fellow sticks on! Well, Martin, it will be all up with your Whitsun Kingship immediately. Only a hundred paces more. 'Tis all over; he'll never be able to catch him up!"
And so, indeed, it proved. The stranger reached the goal a whole half-minute before Martin, and[Pg 69] was already standing there in front of the flag when he came up. Martin, however, as he came galloping in, quickly snatched the flag out of Mr. Varju's hand, and cried triumphantly to the youth -
"Really, now," cried Martin. "You appear pretty cock-sure that you'll get in before me again. I tell you, you'll not. You only managed it this time because my horse got frightened and shied. But just you try a second time, and I'll show you who is the best man."
The stranger allowed him to have his say in peace, and, full of good humour, returned to take his place again in the ranks of the competitors. His modest self-reliance and forbearance quite won for him the sympathy of the crowd, which was disgusted at the arrogance of Martin, and in the carriages of the gentry wagers began to be laid, and the betting was ten to one on the stranger winning all three races.
The mortars were again loaded, the youths were once more placed in a row, and at the third report the competing band again plunged forward. Now also the two rival horses drew away from the other competitors. In the middle of the course they were a length ahead of the foremost racers, and side by side urged their steeds strenuously towards[Pg 70] the goal. Almost to the very end of the course neither was able to outstrip the other; but when they were scarce fifty paces from the flag, the stranger suddenly gave a loud smack with his whip, whereupon his steed, responding to the stimulus, took a frantic bound forward, outstripping Martin's steed by a head, and this distance was maintained between them unaltered to the very end of the race, though the Whitsun King savagely laid about his foaming horse with his whip-handle. The stranger was at the banner before him, and so vigorously tore it out of the hand of Mr. Varju, that that gentleman fell prone from his horse.
Martin, beside himself with rage, lashed at the ravished flag with his whip, and made a great rent in its red centre. Useless fury! The umpires hastened up, and, removing the floral crown from the head of the Whitsun King, who was quivering with passion, placed it on the head of the victor.
The good steed, as if he understood what was said to him, pawed the ground and arched his head. The sworn umpires placed the youths in line again. Most of them, however, seeing the uselessness of competing with these two horsemen, fell out of the line and mingled among the spectators, so that scarce six others remained on the ground with the two rival heroes. All the more interesting, therefore, the contest; for there will be nothing to distract the attention of the onlookers.
Before engaging in the contest for the third time, the stranger-youth dismounted from his[Pg 71] horse, and cutting a supple willow sapling from a tree in the cemetery, stripped it of its leaves, and thrusting it into his whip-handle, mounted his horse again. Hitherto he had not once struck his steed.
But now, when the noble animal heard the sharp hiss of the thin willow wand, it began to rear. Standing on its hind legs, it fell to savagely worrying its bit, and careering round and round. The spectators began to fear for the youth, not that he would fall from his horse - that was out of the question - but that he would be too late for the contest, for the second report had now sounded, and the others were all awaiting the signal with loosely held reins, while his horse was curveting and pawing the ground.
The smitten steed scudded off like a tempest. Wildly, madly, it skimmed the ground beneath its feet, as only a horse can fly when, panic-stricken, it ravishes its perishing rider along with it. None, no none, could get anywhere near it; even Martin was left many yards behind in mid-course. The crowd gaped in amazement at the fury of the steed and the foolhardiness of the rider, especially when, in the midst of his mad career, the long chaplet of flowers fell from the youth's head, and was trampled to pieces beneath the hoofs of the other horses panting after him. He himself did not notice the loss of his chaplet till he reached the goal, where he had to exert all his strength to rein up his maddened steed. He had reached the goal; but he had lost his crown.
"Stop, little brother!" replied Martin, in a subdued, husky voice, which quivered with rage. "We want to prove which of us two is the better man. I confess that on level ground you go quicker than I. You have the better horse, and a fool may win if his horse be quick enough. But, come now, show us whether you are a man where standing one's ground, not running away, is the great point. There's a nice lot of people here, you see, and for all these folks they have only brought hither two bullocks - and little enough too. If you're a man, come with me and fetch a third. We shall not have to go far. Among the reeds yonder is a stray bull, which has been prowling in these parts for the last fortnight, killing people, scattering flocks and herds, destroying the crops, overturning the carts on the high-road, and chasing the labourers out of the fields into the town. Not one of the drovers, or gulyás, in the place can cope with him single-handed. Let us go after him together, and the one that drags him hither shall be the Whitsun King."
Quick as wildfire spread the rumour of this mad idea. The more timorous part of the crowd[Pg 73] tried to get behind the nearest fenced and ditched places; the bolder spirits took horse and rushed to follow and see the hazardous enterprise. All the gentlemen present began betting on the issue forthwith, and Master Jock himself hastened after the youths in his rustic cart. Possibly he thought that even the wild animal would know how to treat a Kárpáthy with due respect.
Scarce half an hour's journey from the town began the enormous morass which extends as far as Püspök-Ladány and Tisza-Füred, in which not merely a wild bull but a hippopotamus could make his home comfortably. On one side of it extended rich wheat-fields, on the other side the rich, dark green reeds marked the water-line, only a narrow dyke separating the meadow from the swamp.
It was easy to learn at the first of the shepherd huts scattered along the border of the morass where the errant bull happened to be at that moment. Amongst the shrubs of the little reedy island opposite he had made his lair; there you could see him crouching down. All night long he would be roaring and bellowing there, only in the daytime was he silent.
When there are two bulls in a herd, especially if one of them be only a growing calf, they are quiet enough, and even timid all through the winter. If they meet each other they stand face to face, rubbing foreheads, lowing and walking round and round each other; but if the herdsman flings his cudgel between them they trot off in opposite directions. But when the spring expands, when the spicy flowers put fresh vigour and warmer blood into every grass-eating beast, then the young bulls begin to carry their horned heads higher, roar at each other from afar, and it is the chief[Pg 74] business of the gulyás to prevent them from coming together. If, however, on a warm spring day, when the herdsmen are sleeping beneath their gubas, the two hostile chiefs should encounter each other, a terrible fight ensues between them, which regularly ends with the fall or the flight of one of them. At such a time it is vain for the herdsman to attempt to separate them. The infuriated animals neither see nor hear him; all their faculties are devoted to the destruction of each other. Sometimes the struggle lasts for hours on a plot of meadow, which they denude of its grass as cleanly as if it had been ploughed. Finally, the beast who is getting the worst of it, feeling that his rival is the stronger, begins with a terrific roar to fly away through the herd, and runs wild on the puszta; with blood-red eyes, with blood-red lolling tongue, he wanders up and down the fields and meadows, frequently returning to the scene of his humiliation; but he mingles no longer with the herd, and woe betide every living animal he encounters! He begins to pursue whatever meets his eye in the distance, and he has been known to watch for days the tree in which a wayfarer has taken refuge, until casually passing csikóses have come up and driven the beast away.
From the information given by the gulyáses, it was easy to trace the lair of the bull. Two distinct paths led to it among the tall reeds, and the two youths, separating, chose each of them his path, and waded into the thicket in search of the furious beast. Meanwhile, the horsemen, who had come to see the sport, scrambled on to the high dyke, from whence they could survey the whole willow wood.
Martin had scarce advanced a hundred paces among the reeds when he heard the snorting of the bull. For a moment he thought of calling to the stranger youth, who had taken the other path,[Pg 75] but pride restrained him. Alone he would subdue the beast, and he boldly sought the spot from whence the snorting proceeded.
There lay the huge beast in the midst of the reeds. He had buried himself up to the knees in the swamp, and, whether from rage or for amusement, had trampled down a large area of rushes all round about him.
When he heard the clatter of the approaching hoofs, he raised his head. One horn, prematurely developed, bent forwards, the other stood up straight and pointed. His sooty black forehead was covered with prickly water-burrs, across his snout was the scar of a large and badly healed wound.
On perceiving the approaching horseman, he immediately raised himself on his fore feet and uttered a wild prolonged roar. Martin, who wished to entice the beast on to solid ground, where he could grapple with him better than in the midst of this unknown morass, and also, by way of provocation, cracked his long whip loudly. Maddened still more by this exasperating sound, the wild beast arose from his resting-place and rushed upon the horseman, who immediately turned his horse and fled out of the swamp, enticing after him the infuriated bull.
When the wild beast came out into the plain, looked about him, and saw all the people standing on the dyke, as if guessing what they wanted to do with him, he suddenly turned tail again, and snorting as he went, angrily lay down again on the border of the swamp. Martin followed after him, and again cracked his whip over the beast's head.
The bull roared at him, but did not budge from the spot. On the contrary, he burrowed with his snout among the reeds, and however much the young man might crack his whip, he only responded by beating the air with his tail.
This supreme indifference irritated Martin, and,[Pg 76] creeping closer to the wild bull, he gave it a cut with his whip. The hooked steel wire plaited round the end of the whip cut out a whole patch on the skin of the savage beast, but it did not move. Another cut reached its neck, chipping away the skin with a sharp crackle. The bull only grunted, but did not stand up, and buried its head among the reeds to avoid being lassoed by the halter-line which the horseman held handy.
But now it was the huntsman's turn to grow angry, and he kept on flicking away at the obstinate animal without being able to move it from the spot, and presently a whole mob of horsemen began to assemble around him, profoundly irritated by the cowardice of the bull, and tried to arouse it by making as great a din and racket as possible.
Suddenly a flick from the whip chanced to hit the bull in the eye. Quick as lightning the beast leaped to its feet, shook its head, and frantic with rage, rushed upon the horseman, and before he had had time to escape, struck him sideways, and with frightful force hurled him to the ground, horse and all, and began trampling them both in the dust.
The other horsemen scattered in terror. The overthrown charger made frantic efforts to regain its feet; in vain! The savage beast transfixed its loins with his horn. Never again will the noble animal run races in the fields. Bleeding profusely, it falls back again, crushing its rider, who, with his feet entangled in the stirrups, was unable to liberate himself.
The baited bull stood on the plain roaring terribly, and tearing up the ground with his hoofs, while the blood from his cut-out eye trickled down his black breast. He did not pursue the fugitives, but, turning back, and seeing the overthrown horse and rider still wallowing on the ground, he began[Pg 77] taking short runs at them, like goats often do, throwing up the earth here and there with his horns. God be merciful to the poor youth beneath him!
At length Martin succeeded in extricating himself from his steed. No sooner did the bull perceive that his enemy was on his feet again, than, in a fresh access of rage, he rushed straight at him. A shriek of horror filled the air; many hid their faces. In another moment all would be over.
At that instant, when the savage beast was not more than a yard's distance from its victim, it stopped suddenly, and threw back its head with a jerk. A skilfully thrown noose had gripped it round the neck, and the end of that noose was in the hands of the stranger youth, who now emerged from among the reeds. Hearing a sound like bull-baiting, he had hastened to the spot, and did not arrive a moment too soon. Another second and his rival would have been trampled to death.
The bewildered beast, feeling the suffocating pressure of the lasso about its neck, turned towards its new opponent, but he also now turned his horse's head, and throwing the lasso-line across his shoulder, set off at the top of his speed across the plain.
That was something like a gallop! The heavy wild beast was constrained to run a race with the swiftest of steeds. The cord was pressing tightly round its neck, and blindly, helter-skelter, it had to go in a perfectly straight direction till it dropped.
The youth galloped with it straight towards the racecourse, and then suddenly sprang to one side. The bull bounded away right on, and now the horse remained behind, while the bull flew on in front. By this time it had lost all count of where it was.
The horseman now drew forth his long whip, and began to cut and lash out from behind at the[Pg 78] bull, which rushed on even quicker and quicker. The trampling of the horse's hoofs, the cracking of the whip, the shouting of the people, confused it into utter stupidity. It could only run on and on, the blood trickling from its nose and mouth, its whole front flaked with foam, its tongue lolling forth, till, on reaching the racecourse, which was covered with a roaring mob, its strong legs gave way beneath it, and, unable to hold itself up any longer, it collapsed in a ditch, and, rolling a good distance, rooted up the ground with its snout, then stretched itself out at full length on the sward, and ceased to breathe.
Shouting and huzzahing, the mob escorted the new Whitsun King along all the streets of the town, for he was in duty bound to stop before the houses of the chief magistrate and town councillors, and there drink their healths in a good bumper, which admirable custom goes to prove that the Whitsun King had need to be not merely a good runner, but a good drinker too; and this latter quality was all the more necessary, owing to the circumstance that, when he had done with the rest of them, he had, last of all, to go up to John Kárpáthy's castle in the company of all the sworn jurors, and drink again there.
Now, when the sworn jurors brought in the new Whitsun King to introduce him to Squire John, the great man ordered every one to leave the room incontinently, so that they two might be quite alone together.
"Then stop where you are, Mike. What if I make a bigger man of you than you yourself have any idea of; make you take your place in genteel society here; give you as much money as you like, to drink and play cards with; and turn you into Michael Kis, Esq., lord of the manor of Nádudvar?"
"If that be all, I am ready."
"I'll take you with me everywhere. You shall drink, dice, bully, brawl, cudgel the men, and befool the women to the top of your bent. At the end of twelve months your Whitsun Kingship will be over, you will doff your genteel mummery, and become the leader of my heydukes. You shall then don the red mente, and wait upon those very gentlemen with whom you have been drinking and dicing for a whole year; you shall help into their carriages the same little wenches with whom you used to make merry. I consider that a very good joke. I don't know whether you think so, too?[Pg 80] How the gentlemen will curse and the ladies blush when they find out who you were!"
Master Jock looked at his watch. "It is now a quarter to four. Remember that. At a quarter to four twelve months hence your gentility, your nobility, will cease. Till then you are just as much a gentleman as the rest of us. Every month you will receive from me a thousand florins plunder money. The first thousand is in this reticule. Now be off! My heydukes will dress you. When you are ready, come down to my drinking-room. Be rude to the servants, especially as they know you to be but a boor, and call the gentry by their nicknames only - Mike, Andy, Larry, Fred, Ned, for instance. Me they call Jock, remember."
In the drinking-room there was fun enough going on already even without him; for there the rule was, Welcome everybody, and wait for nobody. The master of the house introduced the newly arrived guest as Michael Kis, Esq., lord of the manor of Nádudvar, who, "like a jolly good fellow," had come disguised as an ostler to the Whitsun Kingship competition, and there acquitted himself like a man.
Every one thought this a most original joke. It was plain to every eye, moreover, that he was a gentleman and no boor. All his movements, whether he lolled back on a chair, or leaned his elbows on the table, or chucked his cap in a corner - betyár tricks every one of them - was proof positive that he must have been brought up in good circles. A real betyár would never have dared to lift up his head here; but this fellow,[Pg 81] metaphorically speaking, buttonholed everybody. In a few moments, in fact, Mike had drunk good-fellowship with the whole company, and become as familiar as if he had lived among them all his life.
Meanwhile the eternal bumper began to circulate, and Mike fell to singing a new drinking-song which none of them knew, and the company took it up with spirit; and, more than that, it was better than any they had ever sung before.
Within an hour Mike had become a perfect hero in that genteel circle. In his cups he far outstripped them all; and when it came to card-playing, he won whole heaps of money from all and sundry without moving a muscle of his face, raking the dollars in with as much sangfroid as if he had sacks of them at home. Nay, he even lent a lot to Franky Kalotai, thereby obviously displaying an utter contempt for money, for it was notorious that Franky never paid anything back.
And now the heads of most of the gentlemen engaged in this drinking-bout began to loll about unsteadily. Everybody had got beyond the limit where the good humour begotten of good wine ends and drunkenness begins; when a man no longer tastes his wine, and is only sensible of a giddy hankering for more. At such times Bandi Kutyfalvi was wont to exhibit his ancient tour-de-force, which consisted in swallowing with outstretched neck a whole bumper of wine at one gulp or, to use his own technical expression, without a single hiccough. Now, such a feat naturally requires for its performance an extraordinarily concave and well-practised throat, and, with the exception of Bandi, there were not above one or two others who could successfully accomplish it.
"Why, that's nothing at all!" cried Mike Kis, accomplishing the feat without the slightest[Pg 82] exertion. "But now, let any one try and do what I can do - sing a song and at the same time drain a bumper without leaving off singing."
Now, this was an entirely new trick, and an extremely difficult one to boot; for, to be properly performed, it required not only that the glottis should remain immovable during the passage of the vinous torrent down the throat, but also that the throat should give forth at the same time a clear, uninterrupted voice. Yet Michael Kis performed this feat with masterly dexterity, to the general astonishment, and gave back the bowl for the next man to imitate him.
Naturally they all came to grief. Every bumper of wine was a fresh occasion of shame, and the drinkers laughed heartily at one another, for every one of them was obliged to interrupt his song while he drank.
"A bumper here!" cried Bandi at last, and gallantly buckled to the attempt; but the song only proceeded a little way, and then a drop of wine managed to get into his windpipe, and immediately, like a whale rising to the surface of the sea to blow, or like a stone triton spouting forth the water of a fountain, a violent upward rush of imprisoned breath discharged through every aperture of the suffocating wretch the wine that filled his throat.
The whole table arose, the company bursting with laughter, while Bandi, gasping and coughing, shook his fists at Mike during every brief respite his lungs allowed him, and cried, "I'll kill you I'll kill you!" And at last, when he began to feel better, he rolled the sleeves of his shirt up his big bony arms, and yelled hoarsely, "I'll kill you! I'll kill you! Look out, I say, for I'm going to kill the whole company."[Pg 83]
At these words there was a general rush for the door. Every one knew Kutyfalvi's way of going to work, and it was just as well, at such times, either to fly before him or to lie down, for he had this in common with the bear race, that he never hurt any one whom he found lying on the ground. The heydukes hastily removed Master Jock outside also. All the rest who had still the slightest command over their legs crept under the table.
Kutyfalvi was a big, strong brute of a man. He could take up three bushel sacks of wheat with his teeth and fling them over his head; he could bite a thaler piece in two; he could pull a wild horse to the ground single-handed - all of which feats inspired his comrades with such a respect for him that a very advanced stage of drunkenness was necessary before even the strongest of them would venture a bout with him, especially as all such foolhardiness generally resulted in the monstrous Cyclops mangling his weaker antagonist out of all recognition.
No wonder, then, if every living soul in the room sighed, "Woe to thee, Mike Kis!" when they beheld him draw down upon his devoted head the wrath of this giant, who, infuriated at the failure of the wine-swallowing experiment, now rushed upon him with open arms, in order to pound him to pieces, pitching all the chairs out of his way as he rushed along.
But the ennobled ostler was used to such encounters, and when his antagonist had come quite close to him, he deftly ducked beneath his arms, and then gave him a lesson in the stable dodge. With one hand he caught hold of his opponent's collar, twisting it so tightly that he gasped for breath, at the same time tripping up his legs, and then, with the other hand, he threw him over his knee. That is the stable dodge,[Pg 84] which can be safely employed against even the strongest rowdies.
Meanwhile those of his cronies who ventured to peep back through the doorway, heard a great bang as Bandi Kutyfalvi's huge carcase smote the floor, and saw the big, powerful man lying motionless beneath his opponent, who kept him down with his knee, and pummelled him from head to foot, as he had been wont to pummel others when they quarrelled with him in their cups. Every one was delighted that his turn had now come, and when at last Mike Kis let go his collar and left him lying at full length on the floor, they carried the avenger of their long years of contumely round the room, and drank his health in bumpers till break of day.
Kutyfalvi, however, whom, after this little joke was over, the servants removed from the room and tucked up nicely in bed, dreamt that he fell down from the top of a high mountain into a quarry, the jagged stones of which smashed all his limbs into little bits, and, on waking, was greatly astonished that he should still feel the effects of his dream.
From that day forth Mike Kis became Master Jock's prime favourite, and the sworn comrade of every gentleman who lived in the neighbourhood. Nay, even when the Hungarian Diet assembled at Pressburg in 1823, and Master Jock, with great reluctance, forsook his dogs, his cronies, his zanies, his heydukes, and peasant-wenches, in order to attend to his legislative duties, he could not find it in his heart to part with Mike, so he took the lad along with him to Pressburg. This, however, may only have been part of the joke. How comical it would be, for instance, to introduce the pseudonymous young gentleman to the various noblemen and gentlemen assembled there! Nay, better still, some young countess or other might fall over head and ears in love with the handsome youth, and[Pg 85] what a capital jest it would then be to exhibit the fellow in the scarlet livery of a heyduke, whose duty it is to climb up behind the carriage when his master goes out for a drive!
So Michael Kis made his appearance in the midst of the elegant society of Pressburg, and his merry humour and handsome, manly figure, backed up by the best letters of introduction, made him a general favourite. Polite society had a peculiar phraseology in those days. Rudeness used to be called frankness; bad language, originality; violence, manliness; and frivolity, nonchalance. To Mike, therefore, was attributed a whole host of good qualities, and the only alteration required of him was that he should wear an attila instead of a mente. He was a gentleman by birth, and that was enough. Every one admired, not his mind, indeed - they troubled themselves very little about that in those days - but his manly bearing, his rosy cheeks, his muscular figure, his sparkling eyes, his black moustache, which are of far more account than any amount of learning. And all the while Master Jock was laughing in his sleeve, for the red Whitsun Day was drawing near, and most of the young noblemen were hail-fellow-well-met with Mike Kis; and here and there you might even hear dear, thoughtful mammas making inquiries about the circumstances of the fine young fellow whom they were by no means indisposed to see hovering around their darling daughters; nay, more than one of them confided in a whisper to her bosom friends that she had good cause to suspect that the fine young fellow in question had serious intentions.
Such secrets have a way of spreading like wildfire, and old Kárpáthy began to suffer from the drollest paroxysms. Sometimes, in the gravest society, he would commence ha-ha-ha-ing at the top of his voice. At such moments he was reflecting that in a very few days the much-befêted cavalier would[Pg 86] turn out to be nothing but his heyduke! Many a time he would sit up in bed to laugh; nay, once, in the House itself, in full session, when the galleries were filled with the élite of society, and the protocols were being read, the old gentleman, observing how the ladies were regarding the handsome figure of Mike, as he stood amongst a group of young nobles, with all their eyes - the old gentleman, I say, was so overcome thereby that he burst into an irrestrainable fit of laughter on the spot, for which he was called to order and fined. He paid the fine immediately, but he had to pay it over double before the day was over, for he could not restrain his laughter when he bethought him of the near-approaching dénoûment of this humorous masquerade.
And at last rosy Whitsun Day, most comical of days, arrived. Kárpáthy had ordered a great and costly supper to be laid in the park beyond the Danube, to which he invited every one who was at all intimate with Mike. What a splendid joke it will be to present the hero of so many a triumph to the company as - a lackey! Master Jock would not have parted with his joke for an empire.
"What am I then?"
"What are you, sirrah? I'll tell ye. You're a boor, a betyár, a good-for-nothing rascal, a runaway ragamuffin, that's what you are! And you'll be glad enough to kiss my hand, and beg me to make you one of my lackeys, to save you from starvation or the gallows."
"Excuse me," replied Mike Kis, deftly twisting his moustache, "but I am Michael Kis, Esq., proprietor of Almásfalva, which I purchased the day before yesterday from the trustees of the estate of Kázmér Almásfalvi, for 120,000 florins, with the full sanction of the Court, wherefore my title thereto is unexceptionable."
"I got it honourably," said Michael Kis, smiling. "I won it at cards one evening, when I and a few of my gentlemen friends sat down to play together. To tell you the truth, I won a good deal more[Pg 88] than that, but the balance will do to build up a splendid castle on my estate, where I can reside during the summer."
To Master Jock this part of the matter was quite intelligible; much larger sums than this used to be lost and won during the sessions of the Diet at Pressburg. But one thing he could not understand at all.
"That was a very simple matter. When Whitsun Day was only a week off, I strolled into one of the trans-Danubian counties, and there advertised that a prodigal member of the Szabolcs branch of the noble Kis family was in search of his relations, and if there were any noble Kises who remembered that branch of the family, and had certificates of nobility in their possession, which they were willing to transfer to the undersigned in exchange for one thousand florins, would they be kind enough to communicate with him. In a week's time fifteen members of the Kis family remembered their Szabolcs kinsmen, and brought me all kinds of certificates of nobility. All I then had to do was to select the one which had the prettiest coat of arms; whereupon we kissed each other all round, and traced out the genealogy. I paid down the thousand florins; they recognized me as their kinsman, and advertised the diploma throughout the county; and so now I am a landed gentleman. Look, here on my signet-ring is my crest."
This joke pleased Master Jock even more than his own. Instead of being angry, he covered with kisses the astute adventurer who had more foresight than any one else, had got the better of those who thought they were getting the better of him, and had accepted in good earnest the part which had been thrust upon him by way of a joke.[Pg 89]