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In those days there lived at Pressburg a famous family, if the sad fate of becoming a by-word in the community can be indeed considered fame. They called themselves Meyer, a name borne by so many people that nobody would care to adopt it unless obliged to.
The father was a counting-house clerk in a public institution, and blessed with five beautiful daughters. In 1818 two of the girls were already grown up - the queens of every ball, the toasted beauties of every public entertainment. The greatest dandies, nay, even magnates, delighted to dance with them, and they were universally known as "the pretty Meyer girls."
How their father and mother rejoiced in their beauty! And these pretty girls, these universal belles, were brought up in a manner befitting their superiority. No sordid work, no domestic occupations for them! No, they were brought up luxuriously, splendidly; their vocation was something higher than the dull round of household duties. They were sent to first-class educational establishments, instead of to the national schools in the neighbourhood, where they were taught to embroider exquisitely, sing elegantly, and acquire other lady-like accomplishments. And all the time their father hugged himself with the thought that one of his daughters would become a famous[Pg 90] artiste, and another would grow rich as a milliner à la mode, and the whole lot of them would be married by some of those rich squires and bankers who were continually trampling the ground around them. Perhaps he had read of such cases in some of the old-fashioned romances of the day.
Now, such an elegant education presupposes an elegant income; but, as we all know, the salary of a cashier in a public establishment is nothing very remarkable. Housekeeping cost much more than Mr. Meyer could afford to give to it. Papa knew that only too well, and he would lie busy all night long thinking of some way out of the difficulty without ever being able to find it. And he could not call his girls away from the great world, for fear of spoiling their prospects.
Just at that very time a country squire was courting the eldest, whose acquaintance he had made at last year's dances. He was pretty sure to marry her, as any other connection with the daughter of a man of good repute would not be honourable; and then no doubt the bridegroom would advance "papa" a couple of thousand florins or so to relieve him from his embarrassments.
But the acquaintance of these squires was certainly very costly. Public entertainments, frippery, and splendour made frightful inroads; and when the domestic table was spread, the invisible shapes of tailors, bootmakers, milliners, mercers, and hairdressers sat down and helped to consume poor pater-familias' dinner.
As for the mistress of the house, she was the worst manager it is possible to imagine. Understanding nothing herself, she left everything to the servants. Whenever she was in a difficulty she ran up debts right and left (it never entered into her calculations that she would one day have to pay them back), and often when there was only[Pg 91] just enough money left to pay for kitchen requisites for another couple of days, she had a pleasant little trick of posting off to the fruiterer's and bringing back a pine-apple.
One day it happened that the directors suddenly, and, as is their wont, without any previous notification, visited and examined the cashier's department, and Meyer was found to be six thousand florins short in his cash - the natural result of papa's frivolity. Meyer was incontinently dismissed from his post, and the little property he possessed was seized; there was even some talk of locking him up. For a whole fortnight this catastrophe was the sole talk of the town.
Now, Meyer had an elder sister living in the city, an old maid who had withdrawn from the world, and in happier times had been the butt of the family's sarcasms. She did nothing all day but go to church, say her prayers, and caress her cat; and whenever she and her cronies came together they would gossip and abuse the younger generation, possibly because they themselves were past enjoying what their juniors liked. But towards nobody was she so venomously spiteful as towards her own family, because they walked about fashionably dressed, lived well, and went to balls, while she herself had to crouch beside the fire all the winter, wear the same dress for twelve years at a stretch, and had nothing better to eat than a light pottage flavoured with carroways, with a wheaten loaf broken up in it. The Meyer girls, whenever they wanted to make each other laugh, had only got to say, "Shall we go and have dinner with Aunt Teresa?"
Now, when this partly ridiculous, partly malevolent old lady heard of her younger brother's sad case, she immediately called in what little money she had out at interest - the fruits of many years[Pg 92] of pinching and sparing - converted it into florins, and, tying them up in a bright pocket-handkerchief, went up to town, and paid into the public coffers the amount of her brother's defalcation, and would not be quiet till, by dint of much weeping and supplication, she had induced all the great gentlemen concerned (she visited them one by one) to promise not to put her brother in jail, and to abandon criminal proceedings against him.
Meyer, on hearing of his sister's good deed, hastened to seek her out, and kissing her hand repeatedly, sobbing and weeping bitterly all the time, could not find words adequate to express his gratitude. Nay, he even prevailed upon his daughters also to come and kiss his sister's hand; and could the good girls have shown a greater spirit of self-sacrifice than by condescending to bring lips like theirs, veritable roses and strawberries, into immediate contact with the old lady's withered hands, and looking without a smile at the old maid's old-fashioned garments?
"You will do that best," replied the aged spinster, "by bringing up your family honourably. I have given my all to preserve your name from a great reproach, you must now take great care to preserve it from a still greater, for here below there is even a greater degradation than being thrust into prison. You know what I mean. Get something to do yourself, and accustom your children to work. Don't be ashamed of offering your services as a book-keeper to any tradesman who will have you; you will, at least, earn enough that way to make both ends meet. As for your girls, they are now old enough to help themselves. God guard them from accepting the help of other people. One of them might earn her bread as a[Pg 93] milliner's apprentice, for she can do fine needlework. Another can go as a governess into some gentleman's family. God will show the others what to do in His own time, and I am sure you will all be happy."
Worthy Meyer returned home from his sister's thoroughly comforted. He thought no longer of suicide, but very quickly found himself a place as assistant in a merchant's office; counselled his daughters to adopt some wholesome mode of life, and they, weeping sorely, promised to obey him. Eliza got a situation with a sempstress; but instead of trying to get a governess's place, Matilda preferred to go in for art, and as she had a nice voice, and could sing a little, it was easy for her to persuade her father that a brilliant future awaited her on the stage, and that that was the easiest and most glorious way to riches; and he at once bethought him of the names of several celebrated actresses who had also sprung from ruined families and, taking to the stage, had amply provided, by their own unaided efforts, for the wants of their growing families.
So Meyer allowed his daughter to follow her bent and adopt an artistic calling. At first she was only employed as a chorus-singer, but then, as every one knows, the most famous artistes have begun in that way.
Naturally enough, nothing of this reached the ears of Aunt Teresa, who fancied that Matilda was a governess. The worthy spinster herself never entered a playhouse, and if any one should whisper to her that one of the Meyer girls was employed in the theatre, it would be easy to say that it was another Meyer and not her kinswoman, Meyer being such a very common name. So poor Meyer really began to believe that now the whole family was going to lead a new and orderly life, that every one would do his and her duty, and[Pg 94] prosperity would flow into the house through door, window, and chimney.
Mrs. Meyer had now to accustom herself to cooking, and Mr. Meyer to burnt dishes, and the whole family slaved away all day long. Meyer was occupied in his counting-house from dawn to dusk; Mrs. Meyer during the same period was in the kitchen; the children sewed and stitched; while the bigger ones worked out of doors on a larger scale, one of them turning out a frightful quantity of hats and bonnets, while the other was mastering her noble profession, or so at least they made each other believe. As a matter of fact, however, Mr. Meyer lounged about the coffee-houses pretty frequently, and read the newspapers, which is certainly the cheapest way of taking one's ease; Mrs. Meyer confided the pots and pans to the nursemaid, and gossiped with her neighbours; the children read books surreptitiously or played at blindman's buff; elegant dandies diverted the elder girl who was in the employment of the milliner, and it will be better to say nothing at all about the arduous artistic labours of the chorus-singer. The family only met together at dinner-time, and then they would sit round the table with sour, ill-tempered faces, the younger ones grumbling and whining at the meagre food, the elder girls with their appetites spoilt by a surfeit of sweetmeats, every one moody and bored, as if they found each other's company intolerable, and all of them eagerly awaiting the moment when they might return to their engrossing pursuits again.
There are certain happy-minded people who never will believe what they don't like. They won't believe that any one is angry with them until he actually treads on their corns; they fail to observe whether their acquaintances snub them in the street; they never notice any change, however nearly it concerns them, even if it be in the bosom[Pg 95] of their families, unless somebody calls their attention to it; and they will rather invent all sorts of excuses for the most glaring faults than put themselves to the trouble of trying to correct them.
Providence, as a rule, endows those people who have to live by their labour with a beneficial instinct, which makes them find their pride and joy in the work they have accomplished. When the whole family meets together in the evening, each member boasts of how much he has done in the course of the day; and how good it is that it should be so! Now, the Meyers lacked this instinct. The curse of the expulsion from Paradise seemed to rest upon their labours. None of them ever boasted of having made any progress. None of them ever inquired how the others had been getting on. All of them were very chary how they opened a conversation, as if they feared it would be made a grievance of; and is there anything in the world so dreadful as a family grievance!
And grievances there are which speak even when they are dumb. Indoors, every member of the family began to wear rags, and this is what every family must come to that can only look nice in new clothes. Such people, unless they are able to sit before the mirror all day long, look draggle-tailed and sluttish, even if the clothes that hang about them are not very old, and so betray their poverty to the world. The girls were obliged to get out and do up their last year's dresses. Carnival time came round again, and big balls were advertised, but they were forced to sit at home, for they had no money to go anywhere.
Meyer, in whatever direction he looked, saw nothing but ill-tempered, dejected, sullen faces around him; but after a while he did not trouble himself much about them. Only on Sunday afternoons, when a little of the wine of Meszely had soothed[Pg 96] his nerves, would his tongue be loosened, and a fine flood of moral precept would pour forth for the edification of his daughters. He would then tell them how happy he was at having preserved the honour of his name, although he was poor and his overcoat was ragged (which latter fact, by the way, was not very much to the credit of his grown-up daughters), but he was proud of his rags, he said, and wished his daughters to be equally proud of their virtues, and so on. As for the daughters, they were, naturally, out of the room long before this sermon was over.
Suddenly, however, a better humour and a more cheerful spirit descended upon the family. Mr. Meyer, whenever he returned from his office or from goodness knows whence, would find his daughters boisterously singing. His wife, too, bought new bonnets; their dresses began to look stylish again, and their food grew decidedly better. Mr. Meyer, instead of having his modest measure of Meszely wine on Sunday afternoon only, now met that pleasant table companion at dinner every day. He would have taken the change as much as a matter of course as the sparrows take the wheat from the fields without inquiring who sowed it, if his wife had not whispered to him one day that Matilda was making such delightful progress in her profession that the manager had thought well to very considerably raise her salary, but that the matter was to be kept secret for a time, lest the other chorus-girls should come to know of it, and demand a rise of salary likewise. Mr. Meyer considered this to be quite natural.
It is true he was a little surprised to find Matilda appearing in finer and finer clothes every day, and wearing continually the most stylish shawls and bonnets, which she passed on to her younger sister when she had worn them a bit; he frequently noticed, too, that when he entered the room, the[Pg 97] conversation was suddenly broken off, and when he inquired what they were talking about, they first of all looked at each other as if they were afraid of giving contradictory answers, and once or twice his impatience went so far that he asked his wife, "Why does Matilda wear such expensive dresses?"
And the good lady thoroughly satisfied the anxious pater-familias. In the first place, she said, the material of the dresses was not very expensive, after all; it was made to look like moiré, but it was only watered taffety. In the second place, Matilda did not buy them at the original price, but got them from the prima donna for next to nothing, after she had worn them once or twice; the things were as good as given away. It was a common practice at the theatre, she said.
From henceforth the whole family did their best to keep him in a good humour. They consulted his wishes, inquired after his tastes, and were always asking if there was anything he fancied or had a particular liking for.
Moved partly by the fulness of his joy and partly because he thought it the proper thing to do, Meyer resolved to visit Aunt Teresa that very day, and was the more disposed to do so because a new velvet collar had recently been sewn on to his[Pg 98] overcoat, so he stuck the beautiful meerschaum pipe in his mouth and went to Teresa's dwelling, which was situated at the other end of the town.
Teresa made him sit down. Her demeanour towards him was most frosty; she coughed thrice for every word she spoke. Mr. Meyer was only waiting for her to say, "Where did you get that nice pipe?" and behind this expectation was the afterthought that, perhaps, when she knew of the festive origin of the present, Teresa also would hasten to gratify him with birthday gifts. At last, however, he was forced to begin the conversation of his own accord.
"What does that mean? It means that you are a stupid, a fool, a blockhead! All the world knows that one of your daughters is the mistress of a nobleman, and you are not only content to live with her and share her shameful earnings, but you actually come here to me and make a boast of it!"
Teresa shrugged her shoulders. "If I did not know you for a credulous simpleton," said she, "I[Pg 99] should take you for an abandoned villain. You thought me fool enough to believe that you were bringing up your daughter as a governess when she was on the stage all the time. I don't want to tell you what my views are as to choosing a profession - I admit that they are old-fashioned, and out of date - but will you tell me how it is possible for a girl with a salary of sixteen florins a month to expend thousands on extravagant luxury?"
"Don't sit staring at me there like a stuck pig!" cried Teresa, with a sudden access of temper. "Hundreds, aye thousands, of times have I seen her sitting with a certain gentleman, in a hired carriage. 'Tis only a blockhead like yourself that can't see what all the world sees! You are a stupid dolt, made to be taken in. I wonder it has never entered into the head of some play-writer to put you into a farce! What! a pater-familias who, when he is half-tipsy, on Sunday afternoons preaches moral sermons to daughters, who are laughing in their sleeves at him all the time, and who brags about the meerschaum pipe which the seducer of his own daughter gives him as a birthday present! Why, if I thought that you had had[Pg 100] any idea of this abomination, I would sweep you out of this room with the very broom with which I now sweep up the fragments of your pipe."
Mr. Meyer was very much upset by this language. He got up without answering a word, put on his hat, and went, first of all, to the shop of Messrs. Flesz and Huber, to find out how much his daughter had spent there. It turned out to be considerably more than three hundred florins. Aunt Teresa was certainly well-informed.
Thence he proceeded to the theatre, and inquired what his daughter's salary was. The manager had no need to consult his books about it. He told Mr. Meyer straight out that his daughter was paid sixteen florins, but she did not earn it, for she was very backward in learning - in fact, she made no progress at all; nor did she seem to care very much, for she never appeared at any of the rehearsals, and her salary went for the most part in paying fines.
This was a little too much. Mr. Meyer was beside himself with rage. He rushed wildly home. Fortunately, he made such a row when he burst into the house that the other members of the family had time to get Matilda out of his way, so that he had to be content with disinheriting his abandoned daughter on the spot, and forbidding her, under pain of extermination, ever to appear beneath his roof again. A tiger could not have been more furious, and in the pitilessness of his rage he commanded that her accursed name should never be mentioned in his presence, and threatened to send packing after the minx whoever had the audacity to defend her.
His merciless humour lasted for a whole week. Very often his tongue itched to ask a question or two, but he stifled the rising words, and still kept silence. At last, one day, as they all sat together at dinner, not a single member of the family could[Pg 101] touch a thing - then Mr. Meyer could stand it no longer.
Perhaps she had loved some one, and accepted gifts from him. That was not such a great crime, surely, and it did not follow from that, that she[Pg 102] had sold herself. Those old spinsters, who have never experienced the world's primest joys, are so jealous of the diversions of young people.
They scarce waited for the table to be cleared in order to deck out the worthy pater-familias in his best, and, putting a stick in his hand, the whole lot of them accompanied him to the Zuckermandel quarter, where Matilda lay in a poor garret, in which there was nothing, in the strictest sense of the word, but a bed and an innumerable quantity of medicine-bottles.
The girl would have risen when she beheld her father, but was unable to do so. Mr. Meyer rushed towards her with a penitent countenance, just as if he had sinned against her. The girl seized his hand, pressed it to her bosom, covered it with kisses, and in a broken voice begged for his forgiveness.
A father's heart must surely have been made of stone to have resisted such an appeal! He forgave[Pg 103] her, of course, and a coach was immediately sent for in which to convey her home. Let the world say what it liked, blood is stronger than water; a father cannot slay his offspring for the sake of a little tripping!
And besides, as a matter of fact, there was not the slightest reason why he should punish her so severely, for that very same day he received a letter (it was brought to the house by a liveried servant), which the nobleman so frequently alluded to wrote him with his own hand, and in which he expressed his grief that his innocent, well-meaning advances should have occasioned such a misunderstanding. He declared, moreover, that he regarded the whole family with the greatest respect, and as to his intercourse with Matilda, it was simply dictated by his enthusiasm for art. Nay, he was prepared, if necessary, to furnish the most incontestible proofs, under his own hand and seal, that the young lady's virtue was fenced about by absolutely impregnable bulwarks.
"Well, that's all right," said Mr. Meyer, whom this letter perfectly satisfied - "quite another sort of thing, in fact. But, at any rate, he ought not to try and make Matilda go out with him, or try and see her behind the scenes. That might so easily compromise her. If his intentions are honourable, let him come to the house."
Naturally, in a couple of days, Matilda was as rosy as an apple just plucked from the tree, and her squire now came to the house to visit her quite nicely. In a few months' time he departed, and after him came a young banker, and then another squire, and a third and a fourth, and goodness knows how many more. And all of them were[Pg 104] great votaries of art, worthy respectable gentlemen every one of them, who were never known to utter an improper word, who kissed mamma's hand, and talked on sensible topics with papa, and bowed as decorously to the girls as if they were young countesses at the very least. And among them were such merry, amusing young fellows, who would make one die of laughter with their jokes, and teased mamma by going into the kitchen and tasting the dishes, and pocketing the pancakes. Oh, they were such funny, quizzical young fellows!
Four of the Meyer girls were now tall and stately, and all of them as beautiful as could be, and not a year's difference between them. As they grew up, and their virginal charms developed, Mr. Meyer's house became more and more noisy and frequented. The old luxury, frivolity, and extravagance returned, and a perpetual jollity took possession of it. The most select company, moreover, assembled there - counts, barons, gentlemen of high degree, bankers, and other bigwigs.
It is true that it struck Mr. Meyer as somewhat peculiar that when he met these counts and barons in the street they did not seem to see him, and if his girls were with him, they and these friends of theirs did not even exchange looks; but it was his way not to trouble himself about anything unpleasant; besides, he fancied that great folks always behaved like this.
And now his youngest daughter also was growing up; she was already twelve years old, and she promised to be more beautiful than any of her sisters. At present she was in short frocks, and her long thick hair, twisted into two pigtails, dangled down her back. The guests who honoured her father's house with their presence had already begun to ask her, in joke, when she was going to wear long dresses like her sisters.
One day Mr. Meyer had an unusual and[Pg 105] surprising visitor. A bevy of good-humoured youths were flirting with his daughters just then, while papa was smashing flies on the wall at intervals, smiling complacently whenever one of his daughters, startled by an extra loud bang, gave a little shriek, when a knocking was heard at the door. As nobody answered the door, the knocking was repeated twice, much louder each time, and at last one of the jovial young fellows aforesaid jumped up and opened the door, imagining that it was some other merry wag who wanted to surprise them all - and behold! a dry, wrinkled old maid in a shabby black dress stood before the brilliant assembly!
The worthy pater-familias was in the most unspeakable confusion. He knew not whether to ask the old lady to take a chair, or whether to introduce her to the gay throng as his sister, or whether to deny that he knew her. But Teresa herself relieved him from his embarrassment. With a calm and cold look, she said, "I have a few words to say to you, and if you have leisure to quit your guests for a moment or two, be so good as to take me where we may not disturb the company."
Papa Meyer at once accepted this proposal, and, opening the door before her, led her into one of the remoter rooms. They had scarcely closed the door, when a merry laugh arose from the midst of the company which they had just quitted. Papa Meyer thereupon drew Aunt Teresa still further away. Even he was not quite so simple as not to know why the young people in there laughed so uproariously at this old-fashioned spinster of a bygone generation.[Pg 106]
"I have not exactly come here to bandy compliments," replied Teresa, dryly, "and it is not necessary to sit down for the sake of the few words I have come to say. I can say them just as well standing up. For two years we have not seen each other. During that time you have placed a pretty considerable distance between us, and your mode of life has been such as to make it impossible for all eternity for us ever to approach one another again. This I fancy will not very greatly astonish you, and the knowledge that this is so has given me the courage to say it. You have chosen for your four daughters, one after the other, the same career. Don't speak. It is better to be silent about such things, and I beg you will not interrupt me. I shall not reproach you. You are the master of your own actions. You have one daughter who is twelve years old; in a short time she will be a marriageable girl. I have not come to this house to make a scene, nor do I wish to preach about morality, or religion, or God, or maidenly innocence, subjects which great men and grand gentlemen simply sneer at as the stock-in-trade of hypocrites. I will therefore tell you in a couple of words why I have come. All I ask is that you deliver over to me your youngest daughter. I will engage to bring her up honourably as a respectable middle-class girl should be brought up. Her mind is still uncorrupted, she is still in the hands of God, and I will undertake to the day of my death to preserve her reputation. All I require of you is that neither you yourself, nor any member of your family, ever think of her again. God will help me to carry out my good resolution. And one thing more, in case you reject my offer I shall petition[Pg 107] the highest authorities to favour my request which may have very unpleasant consequences for you, for I am prepared to go to the Prince Primate of Hungary himself, and explain to him the reasons which have induced me to come forward in this manner. My proposition does not require much consideration. I'll give you till early to-morrow morning to make up your mind. If by that time you have not brought the girl to my house, you can reckon me as your most irreconcilable enemy, and then the God who remits sins have mercy upon you!"
Mr. Meyer escorted his sister to the door, and so long as he saw her before his eyes, his mind stood still, he was not the master of a single thought. Only when she had crossed his threshold did he come to himself again. The girls and the young dandies commented on the appearance of the venerable virgin in the most amusing manner, and their jokes put some heart into papa Meyer again. He began to tell them what had brought the ancient spinster there.
"And why? I should like to know why? Have I not always brought her up respectably? Can any one say anything against me? Can any one reproach me with anything? Do not I treasure my daughters as the very light of my eyes? Has any one ever heard an ill word fall from my mouth? Am I a swindler, perhaps, who give my daughters such a bad example that the State feels bound to step in and take them out of my hands? Well, gentlemen, say what you know of me! Am I a thief, or a brigand, or a blasphemer?"
What he said, however, made a great impression, for all the young gentlemen now vanished from the house. There was something in Aunt Teresa's threats which might have unpleasant consequences even for them.
When the family was alone again, there was a violent outburst of wrath against that meddlesome Aunt Teresa, and Mr. Meyer himself waxed so wroth that he felt bound to pour forth his grievances outside as well as inside the house. He still possessed two or three acquaintances whom he had learnt to know in his official days: they were now leading counsel in the supreme court, eminent jurists whose opinions he could safely follow. He had not seen them for a long time, but it now occurred to him that he might just as well look them up and be beforehand with Aunt Teresa in case she put her threat into execution.
His nearest acquaintance was Councillor Schmerz, a bachelor of about forty, a smooth-faced, quiet sort of man, whom he found in his garden grafting his pinks. To him he confided his grievance, telling him all about Aunt Teresa and the shabby trick she threatened to play him - reporting him to the Prince Primate, forsooth!
Mr. Schmerz smiled once or twice during this speech, and now and then warned Mr. Meyer, who was quite carried away by the force of his declamation, not to trample on his flower-beds, as they were planted with cockscombs and larkspurs. When, however, Mr. Meyer had finished his oration, he replied very gently -
"Teresa will not do that!"
"Teresa will not do that?" thought Mr. Meyer. "That's not enough for me." He wanted to be told that Teresa could not - was not allowed to do it; and if she tried it on, so much the worse for Teresa.[Pg 109]
Mr. Schmerz had evidently made up his mind to graft an endless series of pinks that afternoon, so Mr. Meyer thought it best to carry his complaint to another of his acquaintances, in the hope that he would and must give a more definite reply.
This other acquaintance was Mr. Chlamek, a famous advocate, one of the most honourable of characters, and withal an exceedingly dry man - practical shrewdness and commonsense personified. He, too, was a pater-familias with three sons and two daughters.
"My dear friend, never quarrel with a relation for showing a disposition to relieve you of one of your daughters. Thank God that you have still daughters left and to spare. I know from experience that one girl gives more trouble than three boys. I should not refuse this offer if I were you."
This third acquaintance was a really excellent fellow, and by profession a judge of the criminal court. He was always frightfully rude to those with whom he was in any way angry, and if the whole penal code had been his ring, he could not have twisted it round his finger more easily.
Mr. Meyer found the eminent criminal lawyer in the midst of a heap of dusty papers. Mr. Bordácsi, for that was his name, had an extraordinary faculty for so identifying himself with any complicated case he might take up as to absolutely live and breathe in it. Any attempt at sophistry or chicanery made him downright venomous, and he only recovered himself when, by dint of[Pg 110] superior acumen, he had enabled the righteous cause to triumph. He was also far-famed for his incorruptibility. Whoever approached him with ducats was incontinently kicked out-of-doors, and if any pretty woman visited him with the intention of making her charms influence his judgments, he would treat her so unceremoniously that she was likely to think twice before visiting him again on a similar errand.
No sooner did Bordácsi perceive Mr. Meyer than he took off his spectacles and put them on the page of the document before him, so as not to lose his place; then he exclaimed, in an extraordinarily rough voice -
Mr. Meyer was glad to hear the word "friend," but this was a mere form of expression with his Honour the Judge. He always said "friend" to lawyers' clerks, lackeys, and even to the parties to a suit whom it was his duty to tear to ribbons. Meyer, however, set forth his grievance quite confidently. He even sat down, though he had not been invited to do so, as he was wont to do in the bygone happy days when they were official colleagues together. It was Meyer's custom never to look those whom he was addressing in the face, which bashfulness deprived him, of course, of the advantage of being able to read from their countenances what impression he was making upon them. He was therefore greatly surprised when, on finishing his speech, his Honour Judge Bordácsi roared at him in the angriest of voices -
"And why do you tell me all this?"
Bordácsi did not let him finish. "Yes, your house! In those days your house was a respectable house, but now your house is a Sodom and Gomorrah which opens its doors wide to all the fools of the town. You have devoted your four girls to the bottomless pit, and you are a scandal to every pure-minded man. You are the corrupter of the youth of this city, and your name is a by-word throughout the kingdom wherever dissolute youths and outraged fathers are to be found."
"With what a handsome family did not God bless you! and, sir, you have made it the laughing-stock of the world. You have traded with the innocence, the love, and the spiritual welfare of your daughters; you have sold, you have bartered them away to the highest bidder; you have taught them that they must catch passers-by in the street with an ogle or a stare, that they must smile, laugh, and make love to men whom they see for the first time in their lives, that they must make money by lying!"
"And now, sir, you have one daughter left, the last, the prettiest, the most charming of them all. When I used to visit at your house, sir, she was a little child no higher than my knee, whom every one loved, every one fondled. Don't you remember, sir? And now, sir, you would abandon her also. And you are angry, you storm and rave when a respectable person wants to save the unfortunate child from having her innocence corrupted, save her from withering away profitlessly in the claws of a pack of gross, rowdy, street-lounging, rake-hell young profligates, from living a life of wretchedness and shame, from dying abandoned and accursed, to say nothing of the fire of hell after death. And you even raise objections, sir! But, of course, I understand, they would be depriving you of a great treasure, of something you can sell at a high price, something that you can calculate upon making a handsome profit out of, eh?"
"Let me tell you, sir, if you are still able to follow good advice," continued the judge, in the same pitiless voice, "that if that respectable person, your kinswoman Teresa, is still willing to take charge of your daughter Fanny, surrender her unconditionally, renounce all your rights to her now and for evermore, for if you raise any further objections, if the matter comes before the courts, so help me God! I'll have you locked up myself."
Mr. Meyer had got a sufficient answer at last; he took his leave and departed. He could scarce find the door by which he had entered, and he had[Pg 113] to grope his way down to the street. The loafers there who saw him nudged each other with a grin and said, "That chap has had a good skinful somewhere!"
So he had to learn from others that he was not a respectable man; he had to learn from strange lips that people looked down upon him, laughed at, cursed him, sneered at him as the man who made money out of his daughters' love affairs, and whose house was a place where young men were corrupted.
In his confusion of mind he had wandered out of his way as far as the Malomligeti pond. What a nice pond! he thought. How many wicked girls could be suffocated there! A man, too, might easily leap into it, and be at rest! Then he turned back again and hastened home.
They quite frightened the child with all these[Pg 114] lamentations, and it was at last determined that if Fanny would say to papa, if he pressed her, that she did not want to go to Aunt Teresa, they would all take her part.
At that same moment Meyer's steps were audible upon the staircase. He rushed into the room with his hat on - but, indeed, in such a house as that it was not usual to take off one's hat at all at any time. He knew that every one was looking at his face, but he also knew that his face was distorted enough to frighten any one who looked at it.
"You are to come with me."
"With your mother and sisters, eh? and become what they are, I suppose?" and seizing the girl with one hand, he snatched up with the other one of the sticks of the embroidering frame, and, before Fanny had time to be frightened, he thrashed her in a way that made his own heart bleed for her.[Pg 115]
The sisters tried to interfere, and got their share also, for papa Meyer broke all the remaining sticks of the frame over their shoulders, so that when it came to his wife's turn, he had to pummel her with his fists till she collapsed in a corner.
A few years sooner a moderate dose of this discipline might have been of use, now it only caused physical pain. And all the time Mr. Meyer never said a word; he simply gratified his rage, like a wild beast that has escaped from its cage.
The chastised damsels wished, in their wrath, that their departing father might never return again. And their wish was gratified, for Mr. Meyer never did return home again. From henceforth he vanished from Pressburg. Where he went or what became of him nobody ever knew. Some maintained that he had jumped into the Danube, others that he had emigrated; and years afterwards distant travellers sent word home from time to time that they had seen a man greatly resembling him, some said in England, some in Turkey.[Pg 116]