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Squire John's birthday was approaching, and a famous, notable day it always was for the whole county of Szabolcs. The clergymen in all the surrounding villages ordered new frock-coats from Debreczin or Nagy-Kun-Madaras a month beforehand, at the same time directing the tailors to make the pockets "extra large;" the Lemberg firework-makers collected hay and straw far and wide for the rockets; the students of Debreczin learnt nice congratulatory odes, and set fine old folk-ballads to music; the gipsy primas bought up all the resin in the shops he could lay his hands on, and the Strolling Players' Society began, in secret, to plan how they could best escape from Nyiregyháza. 6
In more distinguished circles, where prudent housewives are wont to take their unfortunate husbands in hand, and exercise towards them that office which guardian angels perform in heaven, and police-constables perform on earth, the advent of Squire John's birthday festival was the signal for domestic storms. The festival itself used to last for a week. On the first day thereof every well-ordered female being fled from the place, and on the last day thereof those of the nobler masculine race who had remained behind, came [Pg 154]tottering home - some half-dead, others wholly drunk, and all of them more or less battered and penniless.
Squire John himself was so much accustomed to the delights of that day, that he would have considered the year lost in which he did not duly celebrate it; and any of his acquaintances who should have neglected to appear before him on the day itself would have been thenceforth regarded by him as his mortal enemies. Death was regarded as the one legitimate excuse.
The festivities were this year to be celebrated at the Castle of Kárpátfalva, Squire John's favourite residence, where nobody ever lived but his cronies, his servants, and his dogs; and he obtained special permission from his Highness the Palatine to absent himself for a fortnight from his legislative duties at Pressburg, in order that, as a good host, he might devote himself entirely to his guests.
As the day approached, an unwonted piety used to take possession of Squire John. The buffoons and the peasant wenches were excluded from the castle, and his reverence the village priest took their place, and was closeted long and frequently with the squire; the dogs and the bears were locked out of the courtyard, that they might not, as usual, tear approaching mendicants to pieces; and the Nabob and all his retainers went to church to partake of the sacrament, the former vowing on his knees before the altar that he would mark the day by giving all his enemies the right hand of fellowship and forgiveness. Then came the regulation interview between the Nabob and his steward, Mr. Peter Varga, who was such a fool that he not only did not know how to steal, but was by no means willing to even receive presents except for services rendered. Anybody else in his place would long since have become a millionaire; but he had not got much beyond fastening a pair[Pg 155] of silver spurs in his Kordovan leather boots, and making use of a ramshackle old calèche, to which he attached two horses, trained by his own hand ever since they were colts. This, moreover, was only when he wanted to cut a figure.
And now, too, we see him descending from this venerable conveyance. He forbears to drive right in, lest the cranky wheels of his carriage should cut up the beautiful round pebbles with which the courtyard is covered.
The inside of the carriage was chock-full of longish tied-up bundles of documents, which Mr. Peter first of all crammed into the arms of the two heydukes hastening to meet him, and sent on before him, whilst he, picking his way along, with his spurred feet at a respectable distance from each other, straddled leisurely into the presence of Master Jock, who was awaiting him in the office of the family archives, whose gigantic whitewashed and gilded coffers, in their worm-eaten cases, rose up to the ceiling, filled with the mummies of old deeds and discharged accounts, which, for a long series of years, had been disturbed by nobody except an ostracized mouse or two; and what accursed appetite or hereditary perversity constrained even them to feed upon such meagre fare, when the granaries and bacon-larders were in such tempting proximity, Heaven only knows.
Master Jock, on perceiving the approaching steward, leaned forward in his armchair, and held out his hand. Peter, however, instead of advancing straight towards the hand extended towards him, retreated backwards all round the large oak table, to avoid the discourtesy of approaching his honour from the left hand; and, even when he got where he thought he ought to be, he remained standing before him, at three paces' distance, and bowed with deep respect.
And not for the whole world could he have been brought to extend his hand towards Master Jock, to whom he alone of all the world gave his proper title. It was also impossible to ever get him to sit down by the side of his honour. Palko had to hold him down in a chair by main force, but he would always jump up again, and remain standing before his master as soon as the pressure was removed.
And, indeed, his honour, the steward, and the heyduke made up an odd-looking trio between them. Kárpáthy's face, at such moments, was always unusually serene, his great bald forehead shone like the cupola of a temple, the scanty remains of his grey hair curled round his forehead and the nape of his neck in silvery wisps; he was shaved beautifully smooth, save for a well-kept moustache curling elegantly upwards at both ends; the fiery redness of his eyes had vanished, and there was no longer any trace of deforming wrinkles.
Opposite him stood the worthy steward, with the old-fashioned, scrupulously obsequious, and infallibly respectful homage of a former generation writ large on every feature of his bronzed countenance. His moustache was clipped close to save trouble, but all the more care had he bestowed upon his marvellous powdered top-knot - itself a survival - which respectable elevation the worthy fellow revealed to the light of day, neatly bound up with a black ribbon. Behind him [Pg 157]stands the old heyduke Palko in a laced dolman. He is just as old as they are. All three have grown up together, all three have grown old together; and now, too, Palko is as familiar with his honour as he used to be in the days when they played and fought together in the courtyard. The old fellow's head is grey now, but not a hair of it has he lost, and its flowing abundance is brushed backwards and kept in its place by a circular comb; his moustache is more pointed than a shoemaker's awl, and waxed to a fearful extent at both ends; his features are so simple that a skilful artist could have hit them off in three strokes, only the colouring would have given him something to think about, for it is a little difficult to paint-in blood-red on scarlet.
"Would his honour," said Peter, standing by the table, "be graciously pleased to cast his eyes over these accounts? I have made so bold as to most humbly make out a brief summary thereof, that his honour may find the examination a little easier." And with that he beckoned to Palko to put down the documents.
"It would be all the same, so far as your honour is concerned, if they put blank paper before your honour; for they don't pay the slightest attention to what your honour says. It is not enough to know that they do rob you; I should also like to know how much they rob you of."
"Come, come, my heart's best son, what do you mean by talking to your master like that? Look now! you shall look through all the accounts along with me, from beginning to end, so just stand behind my chair, and hold your tongue."[Pg 158]
Thereupon Master Jock, with commendable determination, extended his hand towards the top-most bundle lying before him, which contained the accounts of his agent János Kárlátó, and began fumbling about with it till he arrived at the conviction that he could make neither head nor tail of it, whereupon he handed it back to Mr. Peter, who immediately found the schedule he was looking for.
"To begin, then, the Kakadi estate this year yielded twelve thousand bushels of pure wheat, consequently, the richest soil scarcely produced sufficient grain to pay for the expense of cultivating it."
"That, indeed, is what your agent said," returned Mr. Peter; "but he could have insured against hail at Pressburg, and there's such an enormously big barn on the estate, that the whole crop could have been safely housed, and then there would have been no fear of its sprouting."
"The twelve thousand bushels of corn were sold at nine florins the bushel to a corn-dealer of Raab, I see, thus making a total of one hundred and eight thousand florins, although I notice from the newspapers that good wheat was selling all the time at Pest at twelve florins the bushel, and the corn might easily have been transported thither, for, owing to the inundations, the oxen had no work to do."
"The millet-seed, it is said, got musty from waiting too long for purchasers, so that we could only get eight thousand florins for it. Now, that is a misstatement. I know as a fact that there was no rain just then; but the agent, in order that he might attend a christening, stacked the crop so hastily that it got black and sour from heat."
"The water carried away the hay because, just in the middle of harvest-time, your honour required the services of every man capable of holding a hay-fork at a big hunt. Otherwise nice large sums would, as usual, have been entered to your honour's credit under this item."
"Moreover - - "
The gentleman in question was an enterprising soul, who had started model farming on the estate committed to his care, but this model farming cost infinitely more than it brought in. Moreover, amongst other things he had started glass-works, sugar-works, a silk-factory, a post-office, laid down fir plantations in drift-sand, not to mention many other wonderful things, all of which had come to grief.
"I humbly crave your honour's pardon," said Peter, "but it is not the scientific but the semi-scientific who do the mischief. Science is one of those poisons of which a good deal cures but a little kills."
"That is the report of the lessee of the opal mines. He has paid the four thousand florins rent in precious stones, which we could have bought in the market for a thousand florins, if we had paid cash for them."
"The Talpadi Forest! Why, it is now twelve years since I have seen any accounts at all from that quarter. Don't you recollect how you and I were out coursing a little time ago, and the rain overtook us? It doesn't matter, said I. We must be near my Talpadi forest; let us gallop thither and shelter till the storm has blown over. So we galloped thither in hot haste, and when we got there not a trace of the forest was to be seen. At last I asked a maize-reaper I fell in with, where on earth the Talpadi forest was? Over there, said he, pointing to a spot where some fifty birch-trees were withering in the sand like so many broomsticks, all set nicely in a row. And that, if you please, was the Talpadi forest which I had planted at a very great cost! You had better tell the man to plant out a few more broomsticks if he wants me to see my forest in the future."
"My friend, bad women are a necessity in this world. For inasmuch as there are dissolute men, it is needful that there should be dissolute women also, for otherwise the dissolute men would of necessity cast their eyes upon the virtuous women. You just leave that to me."
"Yes, and for last year too."
"My dear younger brother," old Kárpáthy began to dictate, "inasmuch as you are living at present in this realm, and I do not wish the name of Kárpáthy to be slighted on this particular day when I have made peace with all who ever angered me, therefore I now, as becometh a kinsman, offer my hand to you also, my younger brother, 8 in the hope that you will not reject it; and I, at the same time, send you, my younger brother, two hundred thousand florins, which you shall receive from me, so long as I live, from year to year. And I hope that henceforth we shall continue to be good kinsmen."
Master Jock could scarce await the dawn of St. John Baptist's Day; he was as delighted as a child who knows that some long-wished-for amusement awaits him. He was awakened long before sunrise by the baying of the dogs and the rattling of the baggage-waggons into the courtyard. The huntsmen were coming back from the forest with newly shot game; over the sides of the lofty wains the horned heads of the noble antlered stags bobbed up and down; heaps of pheasants were carried between two poles; well-fattened heath fowl were slung over the shoulders of the beaters. The cook came forth to meet them in his white kantus, and tapped row after row of the fat game, his face beaming with satisfaction all the time. Master Jock himself was looking down from the latticed-window into the courtyard; even then the day had only just begun to dawn, and the eastern curtain of the sky was aflame with purple, pink, carmine, and saffron hues. The whole plain around was calm and still; and silver mists lay here and there over the fields like fairy lakes.
And now the Nabob lay down for another little snatch of slumber. We know, of course, that early[Pg 165] morning dreams are the sweetest. And he dreamt that he was speaking to his eagerly desired nephew Béla, sitting beside him, and drinking the loving cup with him; and so it came about that the sun was already high in the heavens when Palko shook him out of his slumbers by bawling in his ear: "Get up! Here are your boots!"
"Who else is here?"
"There's Mike Horhi. No sooner had he got to the door than he suddenly recollected that he had left his tobacco-pouch in the inn at Szabadka, and would have gone back for it had I not torn him out of the carriage by force."
"The fool! And who else is there?"
"What! that weather-cock?"
"What business is it of yours?"
"Oh, no business of mine, of course, not a bit! I am only a good-for-nothing old heyduke. What right have I to poke my nose into your honour's affairs? Make friends with him again, by all means! What do I care. Kiss and hug each other if you like, I don't care. It was not me but your honour whom the worthy man insulted, and if your honour likes that, why, be it so - that's all!"
"I should think they had. There's that Lokodi with four others. He himself plays the heroic parts; a spindle-shanked, barber's apprentice sort of fellow, takes the aged father parts; and there's a matron, well advanced in years, who acts the young missies. They are now making ready to give a representation this evening. When your honours are all dining in the Large Room they are[Pg 167] going to act the Marriage of Dobozy in twelve tableaux, to the accompaniment of Greek fire, in the front room."
"It is too small."
"But there are only five of them."
"True; but all the heydukes we have must be there too, either as Turks or Hungarians. We have already brought down all the costumes and weapons from our museum of antiquities. The students meanwhile will recite the history of Dobozy; the poet Gyárfás is at this moment writing the verses for it, and the chief cantor is composing the music. It will be fine!"
"Where's my pipe?"
"I know," said Palko; and off he trotted to the priest, whose chief defect and peculiarity consisted not in delivering long sermons, but rather in the rebuking of Master Jock roundly, in the name of the Lord, on this the one occasion in the whole year when he met him face to face, to the intense[Pg 168] delight of the assembled guests, who kept up the joke afterwards till dinner-time. A particular Providence, however, delivered Master Jock from this bitter jest on this occasion, inasmuch as the reverend gentleman had suddenly fallen so ill that he could not perform his duties.
"Who never knows when to leave off spouting," commented Master Jock. "If he gets hold of us, we must make up our minds to have dinner at supper-time; and he so bombards the ears of God with my praises that even I am ashamed. Let the supplikans complete the service."
The supplikans, be it explained, was a five years' student (counting not from his birth, of course, but from the beginning of his academical course) - a student togatus, as they called it, who ever since he had been immured at college had never set eyes upon a human being. We can, therefore, picture the terror of the worthy youth when he was informed that, within a quarter of an hour, he must preach an edifying discourse for the special benefit of a whole assembly of genteel backsliders.
He would very much have liked to have crawled away into some hole, but they kept much too good an eye upon him for that, and, perceiving his fear and affliction, the unprincipled mob played all sorts of devilries upon him. They sewed his pocket-handkerchief fast to the pocket of his toga, so that he could not pull it out when his nose required its help; they made him believe that the gipsy Vidra was the cantor; and finally contrived to substitute a book on veterinary surgery for his prayer-book.
The poor supplikans, when he perceived that he had carried a cattle-book into the pulpit, was so dumfounded that he could not even remember[Pg 169] with what words the "Our Father" began, so he descended from the preaching-stool again without uttering a word. They had, therefore, to fall back upon the dean, after all; but they bound him down not to preach, but only to pray; and pray he did - for an hour and a half at least. The right reverend gentleman heaped so many blessings upon the Kárpáthy family and all its members, male and female, in ascendenti et descendenti, both in this world and the next, that, whether they lived or died, no very serious misfortune could possibly befall any of them.
All the guests were present at this pious ceremony, for Master Jock made it a point to speak to nobody on his birthday till he had first lifted up his soul to God, and on such occasions there was not a trace on his countenance of any of the feelings that moved him so strongly on ordinary days. When he knelt down to pray, a deep, unaffected devotion was legible in every feature; and when he heard the recapitulation of his merits, he cast down his eyes as if he considered all that he had done in his life so far but a small matter compared with what he might and must do in the future. "God grant me but one more year over and above the many He has already bestowed upon me," he sighed, "and I will make up for my neglect of the rest." But could he reckon upon another year being granted him? Was he sure of another month, or another day, or even of the morrow?
Master Jock's unusual emotion did not interfere one jot with the good humour of the waggish company, who laughed and joked all the way from the church to the castle, some repairing thither on horseback, and some on foot. Ordinarily, Master[Pg 170] Jock would have been much diverted by their practical jokes, but now he only shook his head at them. Mike Horhi devised every conceivable sort of joke capable of making him roar with laughter. He filched the clergyman's book; he rubbed pitch on the cantor's seat, that he might stick fast there; he substituted gunpowder for poppy-meal in the kitchen, and filled the powder-flasks of the heydukes with poppy-meal instead of gunpowder, so that when they prepared to fire salvoes in honour of their master, on his return from chapel, not a gun would go off, while the poppy-cakes intended for the banquet all exploded on the hearth. But Master Jock not only did not laugh at these funny things, but actually took Miska Horhi to task for making such a blockhead of himself, and bade him divert himself more decently in future. He also made the poet show him beforehand the verses he was to recite at table, in case they might contain any frivolous or improper expression; he told the gipsy that when he got drunk he was on no account to kiss all the guests one after the other, as usual; the dogs were kicked into the courtyard, and not allowed to come into the banqueting-room and pick the fat morsels off the plates of the guests, as they generally did; the gipsies, actors, and students were told to behave themselves decently; and the common people were given to understand that, though an ox would be roasted and wine would run from the gutter for them, they were nevertheless not to attempt to fight or squabble, as it would not be allowed. And every one asked his neighbour in amazement what was the meaning of this strange phenomenon.
In point of fact, this sudden change of conduct was due to a single idea. He believed that his young kinsman Béla would infallibly come on his birthday. He might come late, but come he certainly would. He could not have given any[Pg 171] reason for his belief, but he expected him, he counted on him; and whenever his cronies began to commit any out-of-the-way absurdity, the thought immediately occurred to him: If the youngest scion of the Kárpáthy family were to see this, what would he say to it? No! Once he had beheld his uncle in the midst of diversions unworthy of him; he should now see him taking his pleasure like a gentleman.
At other times, whenever Master Jock ascended or descended the steps, he had to be supported on both sides, for, like a locomotive, he could only get along on level ground; but now he shoved Palko's hand aside, and easily went down the two and thirty marble steps which led into the garden. No doubt the six months of regular living he had had to submit to while attending to his parliamentary duties at Pressburg had restored somewhat the elasticity of his nerves and muscles.
Below, a host of school children, drawn up in a row, greeted him with cries of "Éljen!" 9 And at the moment when he had descended among the festive mob awaiting him there, all the gipsies present blew three loud flourishes on their trumpets, and two grey-haired retainers advanced towards him, leading after them, by the horns, a young stall ox that had been fattened up for the occasion, and the bolder of the twain, coming forward, took off his cap, coughed slightly, steadily regarded the tips of his own boots, and recited congratulatory verses in his master's honour, without the slightest hesitation or stumbling, which, perhaps, is not to be greatly wondered at, considering that he had now recited the selfsame verses nine years running.[Pg 172]
"And God grant your honour long life, which I wish you with all my heart!" concluded the worthy man, as if he doubted what reception the pious verses he had just recited might receive in heaven, and was determined to clinch the matter in prose of his own making.
Master Jock, according to good old custom, had fifty ducats ready, which he gave to the veterans who had brought the ox. As for the ox itself, he ordered that it should be roasted forthwith for the benefit of the assembled peasantry.
After them came the youths of the town, rolling before them a ten-firkin cask full of the wine of Hegyalja. They brought the cask to a standstill at the feet of the Nabob, and set on the top of it Martin, the former Whitsun King, as being the one among them whose tongue wagged the nimblest. He took a beaker and, filling it with wine, thus toasted his honour: -
"God willing, I desire and pray that the Majesty of Heaven may suffer your honour, both to-day and hereafter, to go about clothed in velvet well patched with gold ducats, and ride a good nag shod with silver shoes. I pray that your honour may not be able to count the hairs of your head, and that as many blessings may be showered upon your shoulders as you have lost hairs from your poll. I pray that all the ministering angels of heaven may have nothing else to do but sweep all earthly cares out of your honour's path. I pray that the golden-spurred csizmas of your felicity may never be bespattered by the puddles of tribulation. I pray that the field-flask of your good humour may always be filled with the red wine of Eger. And, finally, when that merciless scytheman cometh who makes hay of every man, and mows down your honour with the rest of them, I pray that the chariots of heaven may not keep your honour's soul awaiting, but that the[Pg 173] horses of the other world may arrive speedily, and, with a great sound of trumpets, convey you to that great forecourt where Abraham, Isaac, and the other Jewish patriarchs, side by side with three and thirty red-breeched, heaven-ascended gipsy fiddlers, dance the Kálla duet in velvet pump-hose. God grant your honour many more days! I wish it from the bottom of my heart."
And now a pretty young damsel approached - the loveliest virgin that could be found within the limits of seven villages. She brought him a white lamb as a birthday present, and made him some sort of a speech besides; but what it was all about nobody could tell, she spoke so low. They kept on telling her not to hold her apron before her mouth, as they could not hear a word; but it was of no use.
It was a good old custom on Master Jock's birthday to admit the damsel who made the pretty speech on this occasion among the guests, and seat her beside Master Jock at table; and thus she was the only woman present at the banquet. And rumour added that still worse things befell towards the end of the feast, when the wine had mounted into the heads of the guests, and the lamb-maiden had been caught in the whirl of an unwonted carouse. But she was always married to some one afterwards; for Master Jock used to give her a rich dowry, and she got six oxen from her own father into the bargain to set up with. So the good peasants were not very much alarmed at the prospect of bringing their daughters to Kárpáthy Castle.
"Hast thou a sweetheart?"
"I would rather have Martin!"
Then there was another flourish of trumpets, the noble guests ascended into the castle, the peasants looked after their own pastimes, the youths and maidens played at blindman's-buff, kiss-in-the-ring, and other artless games, for the old men there was wine and spirits, and the old women had enough to do to talk of old and young alike.
"He was with me in the next village; he was coming on to you with a birthday greeting, having only just left Pressburg, but was taken ill on the road, and had to put up at my house. Nevertheless he had brought his present with him, and will send it on this very evening. I would have brought it with me, but I came on horseback, and the present was so large that it would have filled a cart, at the very least."
"Quick, Palko, quick!" he cried; "get the carriage ready for him! Send four horses on before, that you may have a fresh relay at the Rukadi Csárda waiting for you! Go yourself! Nay, you stay behind, and send a man of a less proud stomach than you are! Send the fiscal! Tell Mr. Béla that I honour, that I embrace him! Bring him along by main force as quickly as you can! Run! I say, run!"
And not another word did Master Jock say to anybody till he saw the fiscal bowl off in the best state carriage to meet his nephew. Then he began making a little calculation: Four hours there and four hours back, that makes eight hours; it is now two o'clock, he'll be here at ten. No doubt he thought I was angry and sent Kutyfalvi on before.[Pg 177] It was very nice of him to show me such respect. Well, I'll not be behindhand in expressing my regret for my hastiness - asking his pardon; and from henceforth we will be good friends and kinsmen, and I shall be able to rest in the Lord with an easy conscience.
"Look ye, my friends!" he cried, turning at last to those standing around him, in the exuberance of his frank delight, "this will be the commemoration of a double festival, inasmuch as on this day the two last surviving male members of the Kárpáthy family, after a long estrangement, will extend to each other the right hand of fellowship, in token of complete reconciliation."
Meanwhile the heydukes had begun carrying round szilvorium and öszibaraczk liqueur, ten years old, with wheat-bread sippets, which signified that dinner-time was drawing near, and it became every one to have a good appetite. Half an hour later the bell rang, which told that dinner was actually on the table. Thrice it was repeated, to recall any guest who might, perhaps, have strayed away too far, and then the heydukes threw wide open the large folding doors which led into the banqueting hall.
The vast and splendid room was filled from end to end with long tables, which as usual were spread for as many guests again as there were people actually present, so that any late comers might easily find room.
Every table bent beneath the weight of pies and tarts; the most magnificent fruit - golden melons, scaly pine-apples, whole stacks of them - everywhere exhaled their fragrance; pasties of terrific size and shape towered upwards from the midst of the guests who sat opposite and around them, and huge fish, veritable whales in size, embedded in vine-leaves, filled their would-be devourers with despair. Wreaths and bouquets in porcelain vases stood between all the dishes.[Pg 178]
A whole museum of gold and silver plate was piled upon the tables. Even the singing students were to drink out of silver beakers. In the midst of the room stood a silver basin, from whose cunningly devised fountain the pure wine of Tokay spouted upwards in a jet of topas yellow.
Every one sat down in his place while Master Jock made his way to the head of the table. When he got there he perceived that another cover was standing there beside his own. It used to be there on the other birthdays also, for there, from year to year, the peasant girl who brought the votive lambs was wont to sit. But now, Master Jock, in high dudgeon, shouted to Palko, who stood behind his chair -
"What is this? Whose cover is it?"
At these words Master Jock's long-drawn face grew beautifully round again. This little attention pleased him. He patted Palko on the shoulder, and then explained to all the guests that the empty place had been left for his nephew Béla. Then he praised Palko before them all.
The soup now, for a moment, reduced the guests to silence. Every one wished his neighbour a good appetite, and then fell to on his own account. At the head of the table sat Master Jock, with the Dean next to him; at the other end of the table Bandi Kutyfalvi presided, supported by Mike Kis. Nobody durst sit beside Mike Horhi, as he was wont to perpetrate the most ungodly pleasantries - letting off fiery crackers under the table, pouring vinegar into his neighbour's wine-glass when he[Pg 179] wasn't looking, etc. The smaller gentry occupied another table.
In the background stood a colonaded peristyle, in the centre of which was the decorated stage where, during dinner, Mr. Lakody first exhibited a magic-lantern, and afterwards, with the assistance of the students, acted a play called Dr. Faust translated from Goethe by Lakody himself, though Goethe himself would scarce have recognized his own masterpiece. Then came twelve tableaux, amidst Greek fire, representing the flight of Dobozy, and at the end of the last tableau the folding-doors in the background were to be thrown open, revealing a magnificent display of fireworks, which was to terminate the entertainment.
The feast went off capitally. Music, singing, the clinking of glasses, and merry discourse were mingled together into a joyous hubbub. There was not a single guest who, so long as he still had full possession of his tongue, did not call down blessings on the head of the master of the house. And he too was in an excellent humour, and his face beamed, though he drank far less of wine than usual. Evening had now fallen. The heydukes brought in large candelabras, the clinking of glasses went on uninterruptedly. At that moment the rumbling of a carriage was audible in the courtyard.
Master Jock sank back dejectedly in his chair when he learnt from the mouth of the messenger that Abellino really could not come, because he was sick; but he had sent what he had promised, all the same - a birthday gift to his dear uncle, with the hearty wish that he might find his greatest joy therein.
A pretty present for a seventieth birthday! A black coffin covered with a velvet pall; at the head of it the ancient escutcheon of the Kárpáthy family, and on the side, picked out with large silver nails, the name - J-o-h-n K-á-r-p-á-t-h-y.
Horror sealed every mouth, only a wail of grief was audible - a heavy, sobbing cry, like that of a wild beast stricken to the heart. It came from the lips of old John Kárpáthy, who had thus been so cruelly derided. When he beheld the coffin, when he read his own name upon it, he had leaped from his chair, stretched out his arms, his face the while distorted by a hideous grin, and those who watched him beheld his features gradually turning a dreadful blue. It was plain, from the trembling of his lips, that he wanted to say something; but the only sound that came from them was a long-drawn-out, painful rattle. Then he raised his hands to heaven, and suddenly striking his forehead with his two fists, sank back into his chair with wide-open, staring eyes.
The blood froze in the veins of all who saw this sight. For a few moments nobody stirred. But then a wild hubbub arose among the guests, and while some of them rushed towards the magnate and helped to carry him to bed, others went to[Pg 181] fetch the doctors. The coffin had already been removed from the table.
The terrified army of guests was not long in scattering in every direction. Late that night all the roads leading from the castle of Kárpáthy were thronged with coaches speeding onwards at a gallop. Terror and Hope were the only guests left behind in the castle itself. But the rockets still continued to mount aloft from the blazing firework and write the name "Kárpáthy" in the sky in gigantic fiery letters visible from afar.
Now, what more natural than that the mob of breathless, departing guests should lose no time in presenting their respects, and paying their court to the heir-presumptive of the vast possessions of the Kárpáthy family, his Honour Abellino Kárpáthy?
They had all seen John Kárpáthy sink back in his chair, stricken by apoplexy. He had not died on the spot, it is true; yet he was as good as dead, anyhow, and there were many who carried their friendly sympathy with his highly respected nephew so far as to urge him vehemently to hasten at once - yes, that very night - to Kárpátfalva, take possession, and seal up everything, to prevent any surreptitious filching of his property. But the young Squire was suspicious of all premature rumours, and resolved to bide his time, await more reliable information, and only put in an appearance on receiving news of the funeral. Early next morning the Dean arrived to greet him. The very reverend gentleman had remained behind at Kárpátfalva last of all, in order to make sure that Master Jock really signed the codicil in favour of the college in which he was interested. He brought the melancholy intelligence that the old gentleman had not indeed actually given up the ghost, but was certainly very near the last gasp, inasmuch as it was now quite[Pg 182] impossible to exchange a reasonable word with him, which signified that the Dean had been unable to get him to subscribe the codicil.
The Dean was followed the same day by a number of agents and stewards attached to the Kárpáthy domains, who hastened to introduce themselves to his Excellency, the heir and their future patron. They brought still further particulars of the bodily condition of the expiring head of the family. A village barber had bled him, whereupon he had somewhat recovered his senses. They had then proposed to send for a doctor, but he had threatened to shoot the man down if he crossed his threshold. The barber was to remain, however. He had more confidence in him, he said, because he would not dare to kill him. He would take no medicine, nor would he see a soul, and Mike Kis was the only person who had admittance to his room. But he could not possibly last longer than early to-morrow morning, of that they were all quite certain.
Abellino regarded the appearance of the agents and stewards as of very good augury: it showed that they already regarded him as their master, to whom homage was justly due. On the following day a whole host of managers, cashiers, scribes, shepherds, tenants, and other small fry, arrived to recommend themselves to Abellino's favour. The moments of their old master, they said, were most assuredly numbered. None of them could promise him so much as another day of life.
On the third day the heydukes and doorkeepers also migrated over in a body to Abellino, who began to be exasperated at so much flattery. So he spoke to them curtly enough, and on learning from them that henceforth they would regard him as their earthly Providence, inasmuch as his uncle was by this time drawing his last breath, he suddenly announced that he was about to introduce[Pg 183] a series of radical reforms among the domestics attached to the Kárpáthy estate, the first of which was that every male servant who wore a moustache was to instantly extirpate it as an indecent excrescence. The stewards and factors obeyed incontinently, only one or two of the heydukes refused to make themselves hideous; but when he began to promise the lower servants also four imperial ducats a head if they did their duty, they also proceeded to snip off what they had hitherto most carefully cherished for years and years.
On the fourth day, of all his good friends, officials, domestics, and buffoons, Mike Kis, Martin the former Whitsun King, Master Varga the estate agent, Palko the old heyduke, and Vidra the gipsy, were the only persons who remained with John Kárpáthy as he stood at Death's ferry. Even the poet Gyárfás had deserted him, and hastened to congratulate the new patron.
"Well, so you have come too, eh, Martin, my son? You're just in time, I can tell you. Had your marriage been celebrated a week later, your new landlord would have revived in his own favour some old customs. What news from Kárpátfalva?"
The bailiff broke open the letter, and green wheels danced before his eyes as he peered into it. The letter, which was in old John Kárpáthy's own handwriting, begged to inform the bailiffs, heydukes, and domestics assembled round Abellino that he had so far recovered as to be able to rise from his bed and write them a letter, and that he was very glad to hear that they had found so much better a master than himself, for which reason he advised them to remain where they were, for on no account were they to think of coming back to him.
The bailiff pulled the sort of face a man would naturally have who was compelled to make merry on a diet of crab-apples, and as he had no desire to keep the joyful intelligence all to himself, he passed the letter on from hand to hand amongst his colleagues, the other bailiffs, factors, doorkeepers, shepherds, scribes, and heydukes, till it had gone the round of them all. Under similar circumstances men often find a great consolation in twirling their moustaches; but now, alas! there was not a single moustache to twirl among the lot of them. They had neither places nor moustaches left. Some of them scratched their heads, some burst into tears, others cursed and swore. In their first fury they knew not which to turn upon first, Abellino for not inheriting, or Master Jock for not dying as he ought to have done. To make such fools of so many innocent men! It was scandalous![Pg 185]
Abellino was the last to whom, with tearful faces, they carried the glad tidings. The philosophical youth, who happened at that moment to be sipping an egg beaten up in his tea, received the intelligence with the utmost sang-froid.