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Boltay and Teresa said not a word against Fanny's resolution, nor did they talk about the wedding, but in the meantime they began to provide the trousseau, for though as the wife of a magnate, she might come to wear far more splendid things, she might nevertheless keep what they gave her as a souvenir, and, amidst the whirl and bustle of the great world, reflect from time to time, when she looked at their gift, on the modest domestic joys that she had left behind her. At the same time the preparations for Fanny's marriage were kept so secret that nobody could possibly have known anything of that interesting event; it was not in their natures either to brag about or lament over it.
One day, when Master Boltay was at home in his factory, there rushed into the place a shabbily, not to say raggedly, attired female whom Master Boltay could not recognize as belonging to the circle of his acquaintances. But there was no need for him to puzzle his head over it, for the miserable creature herself hastened to inform him who she was.
"I am the unfortunate Mrs. Meyer, Fanny's mother," sobbed the woman in the bitterness of her heart, throwing herself at Boltay's feet, and[Pg 204] covering first his hands and then his knees, and then his very boots with her kisses, and shedding oceans of tears. Boltay, who was not used to such tragical scenes, could only stand there as if rooted to the spot, without asking her to get up or even tell him what was the matter.
"Oh, sir! oh, my dear sir! most worthy, honourable, magnanimous Mr. Boltay, suffer me to kiss the dust from your boots! Oh, thou guardian angel of the righteous, thou defender of the innocent, may God grant thee many, many years upon earth, and, after this life, all the joys of heaven! Was there ever a case like mine? My heart faints within me at the thought of telling my tale; but tell it I must. The whole world must know; and, above all, Mr. Boltay must know what an unfortunate mother I am. Oh, oh, Mr. Boltay, you cannot imagine what a horrible torture it is for a mother who has bad daughters - and mine are bad; but it serves me right! I am the cause of it, for I have always let them have their own way. Why did I not throw myself in the Danube after my poor dear husband? But, sir, a mother's heart is never entirely lost to feeling, and, even when her children are bad, she still loves them, still hopes and believes that they may grow better. For four mortal years I have stood the shame of it, and it is a miracle I have a hair still left on my head for worry and vexation; but at last it has become too much for me; I can stand it no longer. If I were to tell of the abominations that go on in my house every day, Mr. Boltay, your hair would rise up with horror! Only yesterday I spoke to my daughters, I upbraided them; and the words were no sooner out of my mouth than, like harpies incarnate, they fell upon me, all four of them: 'What do you mean by preaching at us? What business is it of yours what we do? Don't we keep you like a lady? The very dress on your back, the very cap[Pg 205] on your head, you got from us! There's not a stick or a straw in the whole house that belongs to you. We earned it all!' I was terror-stricken. Was this my sole reward for so many bitter, sleepless nights, which I had passed at their sick-beds? for taking the very food from my own mouth to give it to them? for humbling myself and going in rags and tatters that they might dress in fine feathers? Then, sir, instead of being ashamed, the eldest of them stood up to me, and told me straight out that if I did not like to live in the same house with, and be kept by them, I might go and shift for myself, for Pressburg was large enough, and turned me into the street. I did not know what to do. My first thought was to make for the Danube; but, at the selfsame instant, it seemed as if some angel whispered in my ear, 'Have you not a daughter whom good, benevolent people are bringing up in all honour and virtue? Go there! These good people will not reject you; they will even give you some corner or other where you may stretch your limbs until it please God to take you away.' And so, sir, I came on here, just as you see me. I have absolutely nothing under heaven I can call my own. I have not tasted a bit of food this day; and if you turn me from your door, and if my daughter will not see me, I must die of hunger in the street; for I would rather perish than accept another morsel from my ungrateful and shameful children."
The part of all this rigmarole which appealed to Master Boltay most strongly was that this worthy woman had eaten no food that day. So he considered it his Christian duty to there and then take a plate of lard-dumplings and a tumbler full of wine from a cupboard, place them before her on the table, and compel her to fall to, so that, at any rate, he might save her from dying of hunger.
"Oh, sir, a thousand thanks; but I am not a bit[Pg 206] hungry. I am too put out to eat, and, at the best of times, I have no more appetite than a little bird. The little I ever eat at table would never be missed. But what I should desire more than all the riches in the world would be to hear a kind word from the mouth of my darling Fanny. Is such a thing possible? Do you think she would look at her poor mother? Would she be ashamed at the sight of me? Perhaps she would no longer recognize me, in such misery as I am, in rags and wretchedness, and so old and haggard. Might I see her for an instant, if only once? I do not ask to speak to her, but if I might just see her at a little distance - through a window, perhaps - just catch a peep at her surreptitiously, see her pass before me, hear her speaking to some one else - - Oh, then, all my desires would be satisfied!"
"Come, come," said he to the weeping mother, "don't take on so! You shall assuredly have your wish. You shall both see your daughter and speak to her. You shall live here too, if you like. It will be very nice for us to all live together, and will do no harm, that I can see."
"Make your mind easy on that score, madam. Nobody has ever disparaged you in your daughter's hearing; and Fanny is much too generous to spurn her mother in adversity. I'll take you home with me, for I have sent her into the country to be out of harm's way. There she lives with a kinswoman of her father's - a somewhat severe personage, I admit; but I'll reconcile her to you."
"What nonsense you are talking, my worthy woman!" blurted out honest Boltay, awkwardly. "I've servants enough of my own, so there's no need for my ward to do manual labour. In half an hour we will set out together, and just leave the rest to me."
Mrs. Meyer would thereupon have kissed Mr. Boltay's boots again, but the worthy man escaped from the sentimental creature in time, and employed the half-hour during which he was absent from her in scouring about the slop-shops and collecting all sorts of ready-made garments, and returned home with a complete suit, which Mrs. Meyer, despite her lady-like squeamishness, was obliged to put on instead of her disgraceful rags.
And here I may mention, lest any of my readers should be blessed with as strong a credulity as Mr. Boltay, that there was not one word of truth in the tragic monologue above described. Mrs. Meyer had not fallen out with her daughters; they had not turned her adrift; there was no need for her to leap into the Danube. The matter stood simply thus: Abellino, since his late rebuffs, had, full of passionate frenzy, plunged deeper and deeper into his unsuccessful enterprise. He had just demanded from Monsieur Griffard the last hundred thousand florins of the second million promised to him. Abellino was constantly attended by a spy in the service of the genial banker, who had immediately hastened to acquaint his principals in Paris with the latest tidings from Kárpátfalva, notably of what had happened on the night of Squire John's birthday. Monsieur Griffard, learning that Squire John was at the last gasp, had sent Abellino not one, but two hundred thousand florins, for which, of course, he was naturally expected to pay back[Pg 208] as much again at the proper time. A few days later, he learnt, from a second letter, that the uncle was still alive, and likely to live; but, by that time, the money was well on its way, and reached Abellino punctually, to his great delight.
So now he had a hundred thousand more florins than he had reckoned upon, and at such times a man is apt to feel confident. He therefore concocted a little scheme whereby Mrs. Meyer (the girl's own mother!) should artfully worm her way into the Boltay family, so as to get at her last daughter, and - we know the rest!
Mrs. Meyer, no doubt, reflected that sixty thousand florins was a nice little sum, and she meant to deposit thirty thousand of it in the savings bank on her own account, and thirty thousand on Fanny's, and thus the pair of them would be amply provided for for life. And what was to be given in exchange for this nice sum of money? Why, nothing at all, so to speak - a mere chimera, which is no good to anybody while they have it, and only becomes profitable when it is parted with - a woman's virtue.
Master Boltay did not take his seat beside Mrs. Meyer, but went and sat by the coachman, and, taking the reins and the whip, galloped at full speed from the town, as if it were a question of some great mortal disaster which he wished to prevent.
When they reached the outskirts of the village, he dismounted from the waggon, and, with downcast eyes and much stammering, informed Mrs. Meyer that he had a little job to see to; he had[Pg 209] to say a few words to a Jew - he meant a Greek. Would she go on to the house? He would go a quicker way among the gardens, and would be at home as soon as the waggon.
To tell a simple lie was almost more than the worthy man could manage. No doubt it was the first time he had ever told a lie in his life, and only urgent necessity drove him to it now. It was true, however, that he did want to get to the house through the gardens a little beforehand, in order to tell Teresa and Fanny of Mrs. Meyer's arrival, and beg them to treat her as kindly as possible, and not appear alarmed when they saw her. At the same time, he told them the cause of Mrs. Meyer's flight, and all this he explained with such brevity that he had quite finished by the time the coach was heard rumbling along the road outside, and was already standing outside in the gate to receive his guest.
The two women were by this time in the passage. Fanny had just come from the garden, and had taken off her straw hat, which might have impeded her mother's embraces. Teresa, too, had put aside for once that perpetuum mobile which women call knitting, lest she might poke out her kinswoman's eye with it.
On perceiving her daughter, Mrs. Meyer would not descend from the coach. Master Boltay and the coachman had to pull her down by main force, and when she did touch terra firma it was only to grovel at the feet of Teresa and Fanny till Boltay, who had no desire that she should make a scene in his courtyard for the benefit of the village loafers, raised her to her feet again.
The worthy artisan did his very utmost to keep Mrs. Meyer in an upright position, but all to no purpose, for by the time she had reached Fanny, down she plumped on her knees again, and tried to discover Fanny's tiny feet that she might kiss them.[Pg 210] This greatly alarmed Fanny, for, having been engaged in gardening from an early hour, she had put nothing on her tiny feet but two little old house-slippers, and consequently Mrs. Meyer's strenuous endeavours threatened to reveal to the world, the disgraceful circumstance, that - she had no stockings on. Blushing at the thought of such a scandal, she stooped hastily and raised Mrs. Meyer up in her arms, whereupon the sensitive mother hid her face in her daughter's bosom, wept, sobbed, and kissed and embraced her with all her might. Fanny simply stood still and held her, without being able to make up her mind whether she should return these tears, sobs, and embraces.
At length the united efforts of the whole family succeeded in dragging Mrs. Meyer from the hall into the parlour, where they compelled her to sit down, and made her understand, at last, that she was to live there. At first she insisted upon sleeping on the floor; then, in the kitchen among the servants; finally, she begged and prayed that, if they were determined she should have a room of her own, it must be the tiniest of attics in which she could only squeeze by huddling all her limbs together, a room no larger than a coal-cellar, from which she might now and then get a peep at her daughter. Unfortunately, in Mr. Boltay's house there was no room of that size, except a granary.
So, at last, she had to let them be hospitable to her in their own way, and Teresa and Fanny got ready for her a cabinet next to Fanny's music-room. When all was ready, Teresa took Fanny's two hands in hers, and, looking tenderly into her eyes, said in a confidential tone: "Fanny, be kind, tender, and affectionate towards your mother! So far from avoiding, do your utmost to anticipate, her wishes. You see that she loves you dearly, you love her too. One thing, however, I beg of you: say nothing, before her, of your approaching[Pg 211] wedding. Keep it a secret for a time - to please me."
On the appointed day, old Kárpáthy - if it be right to call our intending bridegroom old - sent Palko to Boltay's, and with great delight received the message that he was to come for the ring himself.
He flew - nay, that would be saying too much for him; but he hastened to the house as fast as a pair of legs could carry him. On reaching it, he must needs embrace Mr. Boltay himself willy-nilly, and insisted on being conducted to the bride at once. The thought that this wondrously beautiful damsel was ready to take him for a husband, made him positively love her. Mr. Boltay was obliged to call his attention to the fact that the marriage must be preceded by sundry legal and other formalities, which the magnate, despite the fact of his being a member of the legislature, had clean forgotten, though this only shows how completely he was carried away by the idea of his own wedding. Kárpáthy, therefore, had to content himself with requesting his future father-in-law - who, by the way, was a good score of years younger than himself - to keep the whole affair a profound secret in the meantime, as he had his own peculiar reasons for so doing. Boltay promised, and only after the magnate's departure, did he recollect that Teresa and Fanny had demanded a similar promise of secrecy, so he told Teresa of the coincidence.
This circumstance confirmed Teresa's suspicions. If it was for the interest of both parties to keep the matter secret till the wedding-day, Mrs. Meyer could not possibly know anything about it, and therefore she must have another reason for coming here, for that she had a reason Teresa felt quite certain.[Pg 212]
It was only natural too, under the circumstances, that a certain estrangement should gradually arise between Teresa and Fanny. Teresa could not forget that Fanny was now the bride of a millionaire, and Fanny felt ashamed to be as familiar with her aunt and guardian as she used to be. "What will they think of me?" she thought. "They will put it all down to vaingloriousness and affectation." Thus it came about that a sort of cold reserve was observable among the members of the family. Everybody seemed to be upon his guard; and they might have been deaf and dumb for all that they said to each other at meals.
The person who observed this atmosphere of reserve and suspicion with the liveliest attention was undoubtedly Mrs. Meyer. "The girl is not happy," she thought. "They are too severe with her. Teresa is cold and unsympathetic. The girl is bored, and feels wretched, plunged as she is up to the neck in this overbearing rural felicity. All day long she never sees any suitable young fellow of her own age, and the desires of her heart are all the stronger in consequence. Yes, something will come of this, I'm sure."
One day Teresa went to Pressburg to see how the wedding-garments were getting on - all the preparations for the marriage were being made outside the house - and as they were not ready, she felt obliged to remain in town all night, and sent Boltay back to guard the house.
Hitherto, Fanny had never lain alone in her room. Her aunt had always slept in the cabinet, and the door between the two rooms had been left open; and on very stormy nights, when the rain beat against the window-panes, when the wind slammed the doors, and the dogs were howling in the yard below, it was nice to reflect that near her was resting a good faithful soul who, next to God, was her most watchful guardian.[Pg 213]
This particular night, too, was very stormy. The rain poured, the tempest shook the trees, the roaming dogs barked and howled as if they were hunting down some one, and the wind shook the doors as if some one was repeatedly trying to open them from the outside. So Fanny invited her mother to come and spend the night with her.
Mrs. Meyer came, of course, and watched her daughter undress. Why should she not? she was her own mother! She looked at her often, and she looked at her long, in fact, she could scarce take her eyes off her. The girl seemed to fill her with equal astonishment and rapture. At each moment the contours of her virginal figure revealed fresh charms. Ah! in the eyes of real connoisseurs sixty thousand florins were but a bagatelle for such a matchless creature!
At night, in the dark, when the candles are extinguished, old women can chatter their best, especially when they light upon some one who does not easily doze off and is prepared to patiently listen to all they have to say, and even to spur them on from time to time with expressions of amazement, horror, approbation, or other stimulating interjections. Such occasions are the most convenient time for recounting all that has happened ten, twenty, even fifty years ago, beginning from births and christenings, and going right on through engagements and marriages to deaths and burials, till at last a half-snore from one quarter or another puts an end to the discourse. Mrs. Meyer, too, was inclined to be talkative, and she could not have had a better opportunity than when they were both lying in bed.
"Oh, oh! my darling girl!" she began; "my sweet, pretty girl, never did I think I should be so fortunate as to sleep in the same room with[Pg 214] you. How oddly things come about, to be sure! Here am I with four foolish girls, each one madder than the other; for if they were not mad, they would not behave as they have behaved. Each one of them had an honourable attachment, and well for them had they stopped there! but no, they were not content, they would have the whole world at their feet, and so they lost their opportunity."
This was the first assault.
"How happy you are in this house! I see that every one loves you. They're a little strict, perhaps, but what good honest people! A thousand times fortunate you are to have found your way hither, where you have everything you can desire. Here you can live in perfect contentment so long as old Boltay lives. God preserve him for many years to come! And yet I fear that he may one day die suddenly, for his blood is very thick, and his father and his two brothers all died of apoplexy much about the same time of life. I know very well that he would not leave you in want - he would provide for you, of course, if he had not got a nephew who is an advocate, to whom, perhaps, he will leave everything. That is family pride, and very natural, after all. Blood, you know, is thicker than water."
This was the second assault. Frighten the girl with the thought of what will become of her if Boltay dies! "Waste your precious youth while Boltay is alive, and then it will be too late to sigh and groan over the reflection, 'How much better it would have been to have sold it for so much!'"
And the horror of it was that Fanny understood everything quite well. She knew what her mother was talking about, what she was aiming at, how she was tampering with and tempting her, and she[Pg 215] fancied that, through the darkness, she could see her cunning face, and through that cunning face right into that cunning soul, and she closed her eyes and stopped up her ears that she might not either see or hear, and yet she saw and heard all the same.
"I should scarcely have recognized you if I had seen you. If I had met you in the street, I should certainly have passed you by without speaking. Yes, it is quite true. What a tiny little girl you were when they took you away from me! Ah! why did not all my girls remain little! Ay, ay! how poor people's daughters do grow up to be sure! Every time a poor man's daughters grow up he has more cause for sorrow than for joy. What will become of them? who will bring them up? Nowadays nobody cares about marrying. Trade brings in less and less, the expenses of housekeeping increase every day, and if a girl here and there does marry after all, what does she gain by it? Why, a worthless sot of a husband, and a life of misery, care, and anxiety. She'll go from bad to worse, have to slave like a maid-of-all-work, be saddled with a lot of wicked children, and when she gets old they'll pitch her into the street. Ay, ay! the best thing a mother could do for her daughter when it is born would be to bury it!"
Thus she emphasized, for the girl's benefit, all the difficulties of marriage, and laid stress upon the[Pg 216] more disagreeable features of domestic life. And the girl knew quite well why she spoke to her in this way, for that one word, "How beautiful you are!" had suddenly enlightened her mind, and she also began to entertain the suspicion which, by the way, Teresa had never dared to communicate, that her mother had come to her as a tempter.
"What a proud girl she was, eh? The whole lot of them were so proud - you remember, surely? - they were neighbours, you know. There was no speaking to them at all. When that misfortune happened to your eldest sister, they would not even look at us. And now do you know what has happened to those girls? A rich country gentleman fell in love with Rézi and carried her off. At first they cursed her, they rejected her. Later on the gentleman gave the girl a nice little property, and then they were reconciled to her, and went to live with her - yes, the whole lot of them, those stuck-up things who were so quick to judge other folks! And now they say there's nothing to make a fuss about; the girl is happier than any lady, and her lover is more faithful to her than many a husband is to his wife - fulfils all her desires, and gives her whatever she wants. The servants call her 'my lady,' and they are glad to see her in polite society, and ask no questions."
Here Mrs. Meyer paused for a moment, to give Fanny time to take it all in and think it all over. Then she went on again as follows: "I don't[Pg 217] know how it is, but I don't feel a bit sleepy to-night. Perhaps it is because I am in a strange room. I am always fancying the window to be where the door is. I say, Fanny," she added suddenly, "can you do embroidery?"
"It has just occurred to me that the last piece of embroidery you did is at home - that sofa-cover, you know, with the kissing doves on it. It stands just below your portrait which that young artist - you remember - painted for nothing. Ah! since then he has become a famous artist; since then he has painted your portrait in at least three hundred different ways, and sent it to all the exhibitions, and there the greatest noblemen pay him large sums of money for that very portrait. Yes, and bid against each other for it, too. I might say that that painter has founded his reputation on that one portrait, for since then his name is familiar in all first-class houses. That picture did the whole thing."
"The man himself would not believe it," pursued Mrs. Meyer. "A great nobleman, a very great nobleman, became so enamoured of the portrait - naturally he saw it abroad - that he came, post-haste, all the way to Pressburg, to convince himself that the subject of the portrait really lived in our city. He came to our house, and you should have seen his despair when he was told that you lived there no longer. At first he wanted to blow his brains out. He succeeded, subsequently, however, in finding out where you were - saw you, and since then he has been worse than ever. He would come to our house, sit down on the sofa which he knew you had embroidered, and stare at your portrait for hours at a stretch. Your sisters were angry with him because he had not a look for them;[Pg 218] but I liked him, because I always used to hear something of you from him. He was always following you, and I could at least learn from him whether you were well or poorly off. Oh! that man was positively mad about you!"
Fanny now raised herself on her elbows, and listened to her mother's conversation with something of that shuddering curiosity with which Damiens regarded the wounds made in his body for the reception of the burning oil.
"Oh, what absurdities that gentleman perpetrated!" continued Mrs. Meyer, noisily shifting her pillows from one side to the other. "The man was not aware that they were laughing at and making fun of him. Not a day passed without his coming to our house, and he said, over and over again, that if you had been there, he would have made you his wife on the spot. 'Go along with you, sir!' said I. Ah, my dear sweet girl, beware when a great nobleman says he will marry you! It is all nonsense; he wants to make a fool of you!"
"But if he says, 'I won't marry you, but I'll give you money,' that's reason - listen to him. It is only little clerks and twopenny-halfpenny swells that deceive girls with promises of marriage, and these you must avoid; but a real gentleman always begins by giving something, and him you may listen to."
"I didn't know whether to be sorry for or disgusted with the poor man when I saw him so far gone. Suddenly you disappeared from the town. Then he gave way to despair altogether,[Pg 219] for he fancied that they had got you married somewhere or other. At any rate, he came to me like a madman and asked what had become of you. 'I don't know, sir,' said I; 'they took her away from me long ago. Possibly she is married.' I had no sooner uttered these words than the young man grew quite pale, and cast himself on the very sofa which you embroidered, on which is a couple of billing doves in the middle of a wreath of roses. I was sorry for the poor man, as he was a fine, handsome young fellow; in fact, I never saw a handsomer man in my life. What eyebrows! And his face, too, so pale and refined, a hand like velvet, a beautiful mouth, and a commanding figure. I cannot get him out of my head. I asked him why he did not make haste about it if his intentions with regard to you were so serious. He said he was only waiting for the death of his uncle, who was greatly against the marriage. 'That's all very well, sir,' I replied, 'but you cannot expect the girl to wait till your uncle dies; she herself would be getting old by then. It is not a fair thing to expect any girl to do.' Then he said he would swear fidelity to you in the mean time. 'Alas, sir!' I said, 'it is hard to believe in that; one cannot trust the men nowadays. You would only make the girl unhappy, and the marriage would remain an eternal secret.' Thereupon he said that if I did not believe his word of honour and his oath, he was ready to deposit with me sixty thousand florins, ready money, and if ever he should be such a scoundrel as to fall short of his word and desert you, he would forfeit the money. Now, sixty thousand florins is a great sum of money. Nobody would be such a fool as to lightly chuck it away. A man would think twice about breaking his word when all that was at stake, especially when he had given his word to such a wondrously lovely girl as my Fanny."[Pg 220]
"Good night; I want to go to sleep," stammered Fanny, sinking back again between her pillows; and for a long time afterwards she tossed about in her bed, whilst hatred, horror, and disgust struggled together in her soul. Only the late dawn brought rest at last to her weary eyelids.
The sun was already shining through the window-panes when Fanny awoke. Mrs. Meyer must have got up and gone out much earlier, for there was no sign of her. Her good humour returned, therefore, and she arose and dressed hastily, scarcely allowing herself time to arrange her hair in the simplest manner possible.
Breakfast was already awaiting her. Mrs. Meyer meanwhile was in the kitchen outside making the coffee and the toast. She would not hear of the servants helping her; such a sweet pretty daughter deserved that her mother should take a little trouble on her account.
"Oh, what a pretty hand, what an elegant hand! Oh, my darling, my only girl! Ah, how blessed I am in living so near to you! Permit me to give you your coffee. I know exactly how you like it, don't I? - a little sugar and lots of milk, that's it, isn't it? I have forgotten nothing, you see."
The woman was quite loquacious. Whenever Teresa was present she hardly ventured to address the girl at all. Teresa's cold, perpetually watchful eyes, always had a disquieting effect upon her; now she was freed from that restraint.
Fanny primly sipped her coffee, looking from time to time at her mother, who never once ceased praising her beauty and goodness, and would have compelled her to eat up every bit of breakfast if she could have had her way.[Pg 221]
"Then you know him?"
"Yes, my darling, a lot of money indeed; the legal rate of interest upon it is three thousand six hundred florins. A poor man would have to put his nose to the grindstone for a long, long time before he could earn that."
"Ah, what a prudent girl it is! She is not a feather-brain like her sisters. She will not make a fool of her old mother. She is, indeed, my own true girl!" thought Mrs. Meyer to herself, and she rubbed her hands for joy.
"Ah, my daughter, romance is, no doubt, a very fine thing, but it will soon bring you to starvation if you have nothing else to depend upon. Those poetic gentlemen love to scribble about ideals and such like rubbish, yet they themselves are always looking out for the trees on which money grows. Why, the whole world runs after money, nothing but money, and he who has money has honour into the bargain. A beggar may be as honourable as you like, but nobody takes any notice of him. You are young now, and handsome, and can get something on the strength of it; but how long will your beauty last? In ten years' time it will be gone. Nay, more, your loveliness may not even last so long as ten years if you continue to live as you are living now, for those damsels who stint themselves of the joys of life, wither the quickest - - "
"She wants to go home to her daughters (Mrs. Meyer looked frightened). There are some embroideries of mine there which I do not want my sisters to throw away or sell in the rag-market; bring them back to me."
"I am thinking especially of a sofa that is there. Mamma knows which it is, for I embroidered the cover; it has two doves worked upon it. I would not let my sisters have that on any account; do you understand?"
Why, of course she understood! This was the girl's way of showing that she accepted the offer of the gentleman who was so fond of sitting on the sofa, and how delicately she conveyed her consent - that blockhead of a Boltay did not suspect anything. Oh, a sage damsel! a golden-minded damsel!
Fanny remained looking after them for some time, and then with a cold, contemptuous expression, returned to her room, watered her flowers, fed her birds, and sang herself back into a good humour again.
On reaching town, Boltay dismounted at the first shop (he pretended he had some indispensable purchase to make), and bade the coachman take Mrs. Meyer to where she wanted to go. He would find his way to his house on foot, he said.
It took Mrs. Meyer a good couple of hours to tell them all about her happy adventure: how she had struggled, how much eloquence she had expended till she had compelled the girl to surrender. For the girl was frightfully modest, she said, and she had to make her believe that the gentleman really meant to make her his wife, and had said so all along.
Abellino, in his joy, could scarce restrain himself from embracing the duenna at intervals, during the course of her entertaining narrative, especially when she told him what a splendid picture she had drawn of him to Fanny.[Pg 225]
Well, let us leave them all making merry together, and accompany Boltay homewards also. Teresa was already awaiting him in the doorway, for the coachman had arrived first, and told her he was coming. His first care was to give her the letter.
"I know everything. Don't let that woman, whom I cannot call mother without a feeling of horror, come to our house again. Send word to Mr. John Kárpáthy, and tell him to come to me at once. I have something very serious to say to him, which admits of no delay. Send immediately.
What was the meaning of it? What had happened? When had there been time for anything to happen? They had had their coffee so nicely and quietly together, whispering so confidentially all the time, and kissed each other's hands at parting. Mr. Boltay did not understand it at all.
So they had to send at once to John Kárpáthy. Who was to go? Boltay resolved to go himself. He had good legs, and would be there in a moment. So he went and gave the message to old Palko, who communicated it to his master forthwith. The bridegroom understood it in a moment, and lost no time in getting into his carriage and setting out. Boltay and Teresa sat beside him in the carriage. Nobody saw them through the closed windows, and five fiery steeds carried them along the king's high-road at a gallop, taking but a couple of hours to accomplish the journey, whereas Master Boltay at his more leisurely pace would have taken four at least.
Fanny herself received her distinguished guest with a face even paler than usual; but this pallor rather became her. Squire John was beside himself for rapture. He would not give his fair bride time to approach him, but, putting his hand solemnly upon his breast, addressed her in language very unusual for him -
"And I, sir," said Fanny, in a calm and resolute voice, "shall consider it my highest duty to do honour to your name. And now I would ask you all three, my friends, to grant me a few hours' private interview where we shall not be disturbed."
And then the bridegroom, Squire John! Where was he, and what had become of the old Nabob? Could any one have recognized him? Was this merry, sprightly, leaping, smiling, triumphant creature the same man? Why, he had grown twenty years younger at the very least! It was a changeling, surely!
Early next morning a servant arrived at Boltay's[Pg 228] country house by the market cart, with the embroidered sofa which Mrs. Meyer sent to Fanny. The servant whispered secretly that a letter had been thrust into the bottom of the sofa; and so it was.
Fanny searched for the letter till she found it. It was in her mother's handwriting. The rich gentleman was delighted, it said, so delighted in fact, that he had arranged to give a grand party in Fanny's honour at Mr. Kecskerey's rooms; and a beautiful invitation card was enclosed, addressed to - "Mademoiselle Fanny de Meyer avec famille."
But who was this Mr. Kecskerey you will ask? Well, he was a worthy gentleman who was wont to play no inconsiderable part in the refined society of the day, and supplied one of the most crying necessities of the age. Every one knew him, everybody, that is, who prided himself upon being somebody, whether he was a great nobleman or a great artist. His rooms, his suppers, his breakfasts were the usual rallying points of the whole world of fashion.
Eminent damsels, whose enthusiasm for art constrained them to come to closer quarters than usual with this or that famous artist; liberal-minded amazons, who extended their tender relations beyond the chains of Hymen; lively dames, who loved to see around them good-humoured, free-and-easy folks, instead of the usual dull and dignified drawing-room loungers; foreign millionaires, who desired to be regaled with an exhibition of beauty and enjoyment; blasé souls, who infected others with the contagion of their own disgust; crazy poets, who needed but a nod to immediately rise[Pg 229] to their feet and declaim their own verses; two or three newspaper correspondents, who describe in their journals everything that they hear, see, eat, and drink at Mr. Kecskerey's suppers, and many others of a like kidney, were the sort of guests who frequented these saloons of an evening, generally twice a week.
It must not be supposed for a moment, however, that there was ever the slightest breach of good manners at Mr. Kecskerey's social evenings. Any one supposing the contrary would be making the greatest mistake in the world. The most rigorous propriety was the order of the day, or rather of the evening. First of all, the artists and artistes recited, sang, and played the piano, and then those who chose might dance a few modest quadrilles and waltzes together. Then every one went to supper in the most perfect order, the ladies sitting down and the gentlemen standing while they ate and drank. Sometimes a few glasses of champagne were drained to toast the ladies who were present, or, perhaps, some of the celebrities of the day. Then, after a little brief but lively conversation, a few more quadrilles and waltzes would be danced, and at eleven o'clock the ladies would rise and retire, and only a few dandies - the younger and the older men as a rule - would remain behind for a glass or two, or a hand at cards.
From this every one can easily see that at these evening entertainments there was not the slightest thing that could be considered an offence against good manners or good morals. Oh no! Mr. Kecskerey would never have allowed such a thing; he was too proud of his renown for that. He was no minister of love, not he! He only gave people the opportunity of meeting together if they liked, and that is entirely a personal matter, of course.
An especially grand assembly was to be held at Mr. Kecskerey's on the day fixed for Fanny's[Pg 230] appearance by Abellino and his friends. They naturally sent out all the invitations, as the money for the entertainment came out of their pockets, and all the elegant world of their acquaintance was to do honour to the occasion.
On the morning of the critical day Mrs. Meyer, dressed in the self-same garments which Master Boltay had got for her, took her seat in a hackney-coach, and drove out of town. All the way along she was concocting the further details of the great affair. Leaving the coach standing on the outskirts of the wood, she would make her way on foot to Boltay's dwelling, and there she would say that she had brought the things from town. Fanny would then go out for a walk with her under the pretext of looking at the crops, and on reaching the coach they would step in, shut the door, and off they would set at full tilt without asking leave of anybody.
Maturing thus her amiable designs, she safely reached the meadows near Boltay's dwelling. Providence was so far merciful to her that she did not break an arm or a leg on the way. On reaching her journey's end, however, a very cruel surprise awaited her, for in reply to her inquiries about Fanny, the servants informed her that the young lady had driven into Pressburg early that very morning.
Alas, alas! What was the girl thinking about? Perhaps she only wanted to steal a march upon her mother, and look after the lucrative business herself unaided? Perhaps some one had explained to her that it was best altogether to dispense with the[Pg 231] services of go-betweens in such affairs? Well, it would be a pretty thing indeed if she had wiped her mother out of the reckoning altogether!
Away! Back to the coach! Back to Pressburg in hot haste, if the horses died for it. But where could the girl be? What if she had gone quietly off with Abellino in the meantime; or, still worse, with some one else, and did not turn up at all? Oh, what bitter grief and anguish a mother's heart has to contend with!
Meanwhile, all the guests were assembled in Mr. Kecskerey's saloons. One after another bevies of charming women alighted at the entrance with delicate coquetry, permitting the eye-glassed cavaliers to catch glimpses of their tiny beribboned feet as they dismounted from their equipages. In the hall, liveried footmen distributed tickets for shawls and slippers. The master of the house, the honourable Mr. Kecskerey, with dignified condescension, received the arrivals in the doorway. Everybody knows that Kecskerey's money does not pay for the evening's entertainment, and he himself knows that they know it. And yet, for all that, they bow and scrape to one another as politely as if he were a real host and they were real guests. Mr. Kecskerey's shrill nasal voice resounded above all the din and bustle.
"I am so delighted that you have not rejected my modest invitation. Your excellency has, indeed, honoured my poor house by your presence. Mesdames, so kind of you not to forget the most sincere of your servants. Sir, it is really too good of you to neglect your important studies on my account! Countess, your siren song is generally acknowledged to be the gem of the evening, etc."
The amiable host laid himself out to make the diversion of his guests as free and unconstrained as possible. Those who did not know and wished to know each other were immediately introduced,[Pg 232] though it is possible that they had known each other of old, without his or any one else's intervention. He gave the poets printed sheets, in which they could read their own works. He made the musicians sit down before the piano, and placed behind their backs some one to praise them, and he possessed the art of saying something obliging, something interesting, to every one; he scattered freshly done-up gossip and piquant anecdotes amongst the thronging crowds, he knew how to make tea better than any one else, and his eye was upon everybody, so that nobody felt neglected. A model host, indeed!
"Pardon me, honoured host, for my indecent haste in introducing among the élite of your distinguished guests as if he were a bosom friend, such a cosmopolitan celebrity, who, only this very hour, has unexpectedly arrived here from Paris."
Oh, as for that, Mr. Kecskerey, so far from granting his pardon, expressed himself obliged and gratified a thousand times over at having been afforded the felicity of an introduction to such a distinguished personage. And all this took place with as much solemnity as if Abellino was not in reality the host of the evening, and as if everybody did not know it!
As a matter of fact, the worthy banker had come all the way from Paris (and there was no railway communication between the two places then, remember) on purpose to convince himself with his own eyes, whether the old Nabob, on[Pg 233] whose skin he had staked such a pile of money, was really going to die or not?
Mr. Kecskerey lavished his most delicate attentions upon the eminent stranger, conducting him into the society of the most charming women, his principal object therein being to relieve Abellino of this incubus. As for Abellino, he withdrew, meanwhile, with a few young bucks of his own age, into the card-room, where he was likely to pass the time most agreeably until the arrival of Fanny.
"Ah, Fennimore!" cried he. "You certainly ought to have mighty good luck at cards to-day, for, so far as love is concerned, everything is going against you. Diable! you will have to win a jolly lot, for you've lost a thousand ducats to me already. You laid a wager that I would not win the girl, eh? You shall see presently. And perhaps you all fancy that the expenses of this evening will come out of my pocket? You are very much mistaken, I can tell you. It is Fennimore who will have to pay. Here, give me an inch of room at the table, and I'll try my luck."
Fennimore arose; he would play no more. He was livid with rage. He had lost his wager (he had bet Abellino a thousand ducats that he would never seduce Fanny) - he had lost his money, and he had to bear, besides, the stinging sarcasms of his triumphant rival. His heart was full of gall[Pg 234] and venom. More than once he was on the point of making a vigorous demonstration with a heavy candlestick; but he thought better of it, and at last got up and quitted the room.
"Well," cried he at last, sweeping into his pocket the banknotes piled up before him, "Fennimore's twofold ill luck has given the lie to the proverb. I am going to contradict it with my twofold good fortune."
In the very next room he came face to face with a lackey who had long been looking for him. Mrs. Meyer was waiting for him, the man said; she was in the ante-chamber, but could not come in, for she had only just returned from a journey, and had not had time to change her dress.
Ugh! that was not a good sign. Abellino immediately hastened out to have a word with her. She said that she had not come across the girl, but she was sure to come, as otherwise she would not have accepted the invitation.
There, however, he could not afford to display his anger; no, there he had to carry it off with a joyous, triumphant, provocative face to the very end. He would rather lose all his money than be left in the lurch by the girl now.
Abellino pressed into the servant's hand as many ducats as he happened to have about him, pulled himself together, and got up and looked at himself in a mirror. He was elegant and genteel, at any rate, that everybody would be bound to allow. His whole get-up was unexceptionable - his chin was clean-shaven, his moustache and whiskers were downright picturesque, his cravat was ravishing, and his vest magnificent.
And now the flunkey whose duty it was to announce the arrivals, entered the room (Abellino caught sight of him in the mirror), and announced in his ceremonious salon voice, "Madame Fanny de Kárpáthy, née de Meyer!"
Some of the guests, full of curiosity, pressed forward to meet the new arrivals. The host, I mean Mr. Kecskerey, went towards the entrance; the lackey threw open the folding-doors, and a young lady entered, accompanied by a gentleman. For a moment the whole company was dumb with amazement. Was it the sight of the young lady that amazed them so? She was beautiful, certainly. A simple but costly lace mantle floated, wave-like,[Pg 236] round her superb figure; the rich tresses of her hair were covered by a slight veil of Brussels lace, which allowed her long curls à l'Anglaise to sweep down on both sides over her marble-smooth shoulders and ravishingly beautiful bosom. And then that face, that complexion like a faintly blushing rose, that look worthy of a goddess, those burning black eyes so full of vivacity and passion, and contrasting so strangely with the childlike lips suggestive of sleeping innocence, but harmonizing on the other hand with the dimples on her rosy chin and cheeks, set there surely for the undoing of any human soul who saw a smile upon them!
"I was very pleased to accept your honoured invitation," said she, "and I have brought my family with me also, as you see. I mean, of course, my husband, Mr. John Kárpáthy;" and she indicated the gentleman by her side.
But meantime John Kárpáthy, the good-humoured, merry, radiant Squire John, pressed the hand of the master of the house as if he were an old acquaintance, at the same time keeping his wife's little hand safely tucked under his arm.
"Congratulate me, my worthy friend," said he. "I have won to-day a treasure, a heavenly treasure. I am blessed indeed. I have no need of any other paradise, for this world is now a paradise to me."[Pg 237]
Why, if she had been carried up to the heights of heaven or down to the depths of hell; if she had been fenced about in a rock-girt fortress, or if wrathful archangels had guarded her with flaming swords, she would not have been so completely shielded from him as by that talismanic name - "Madame John Kárpáthy!"
Every eye that had sated itself with gazing on the beautiful young bride, strayed back to him, and every look fixed upon him was full of scorn and ridicule. The dandy, who was celebrating his uncle's wedding! The outwitted suitor, whose adored one gave her hand - not to him, but to his uncle!
It almost did Abellino good to see some one in the company who seemed to be as hard hit as himself - namely, Monsieur Griffard, and true, even now, to his malicious nature, he turned towards the banker and inquired mockingly -
"Mon cher Abellino!" said Fennimore, who chanced to be standing by him, and never had his thin drawling voice seemed so offensive, "it looks very much as if you owed me a thousand ducats. Ha, ha, ha!"
Abellino turned furiously upon him, but at that instant his eyes met those of Squire John, who[Pg 238] had just then reached the place where he was standing, with his wife under his arm, and introduced them to each other with the most benevolent smile in the world.
Ah, this was the moment which he had so joyfully anticipated; this was the exquisite vengeance, the thought of which had grown up in the heart of the persecuted girl, and made the eyes of the gentle creature sparkle so brightly.
But Abellino, the moment they had passed by, stuck his thumbs into the corners of his vest, and humming a tune, and holding his head high, as if he were in the best of humours, strolled from one end of the large assembly room to the other, feigning ignorance of the fact that the whispering and tittering that resounded on every side was so much scorn and ridicule directed against him.
As he passed through the door he heard how everybody there was laughing and sniggering. Fennimore's shrill voice resounded through the din. The moment they saw him the peals of laughter broke off suddenly, all signs of hilarity disappeared, everybody tried to put on a solemn and expectant look. Could anything in the world be more aggravating?
Abellino dragged a chair to the table and sat[Pg 239] down among them. Why did they not go on laughing; why did they not continue their conversation? Why did Fennimore make such efforts to put on a solemn face, when his mouth was regularly twitching?
Fennimore was sitting at the other end of the table, and he won continually; he doubled, trebled, quadrupled his stakes; he doubled them again, and still he won. Abellino began to lose his sang-froid and get flurried. He did not keep a proper watch on the stakes, and often swept in the stakes of the winners and paid the losers. His mind was elsewhere.
"Yes, you. Did you not bet me that you would seduce Fanny? And how splendidly it has turned out! Abellino flies from the embraces of his uncle's wife like a new Joseph fleeing from a new Madame Potiphar! You had much better take care lest the lady takes a fancy to some other nice young man. Ah, ah, ah! Abellino as the protector of virtue! Abellino as a garde des dames! Why, it's sublime! You might make a capital farce out of it."
Every word was as venom to his ears, every word cut him to the quick, cut him to the very marrow. Abellino turned pale and shivered with rage. What Fennimore said was true. He must needs tremble now at the thought that this[Pg 240] woman would find some one to love. Damnation! Damnation!
"I did not observe it."
"Let me go - let me go! Give me a knife!" he roared, with foaming lips; while Abellino, breathing hard, regarded him with bloodshot eyes. Only with the greatest difficulty were they prevented from tearing each other to pieces.
At this unseemly disturbance, Mr. Kecskerey rushed in with a very alarmed expression of face, forced his way through the ranks of the wranglers, and, assuming his most imposing manner, exclaimed with a voice that rang out like a clarion, "Respect the sanctity of my house!"
This intervention brought the combatants to their senses. They began to recognize that this was not the place for adjusting affairs of honour. The appeal to the sanctity of Mr. Kecskerey's house also did something to restore the good-humour of the majority. Fennimore and Abellino were therefore advised by their friends to go home, and settle their little matter the next morning. They departed accordingly, and the company was disturbed no more. A few minutes afterwards every[Pg 241] one knew that Fennimore and Abellino had quarrelled at cards, but every one pretended that he knew nothing at all about it.
But the quarrel in the card-room of Mr. Kecskerey's establishment had serious consequences for both the principal disputants. There could be no thought of a reconciliation after such a deliberate and public affront as that inflicted upon Fennimore by Abellino; so they sent their seconds to each other, and it was arranged that they should fight the matter out in the large room of The Green Tree tavern. They met accordingly, and a stubborn contest ensued, marked on both sides by an altogether unprecedented display of vindictive temper. Finally, Fennimore, after treacherously wounding Abellino in the back during a suspension of hostilities, and again on the shoulder when the fight was resumed, was himself transfixed by his adversary's sword, and died without uttering a sigh or groan, or moving a muscle of his face. As for Abellino, he was confined to his bed for a whole month, and when he had partially recovered, he received a hint from his well-wishers to the effect that, until the affair had blown over a little, it would be as well if he took the air somewhere abroad; and that, too, not in any civilized kingdom, for there they would not be very long in nabbing a man like him who had so many creditors and loved to make a stir, but in some nice Oriental empire where he would be out of harm's way. So it ended in his setting off for Palestine, to visit the Holy Sepulchre, where, said the wags, he was going to do penance for his sins. Thither we need not follow him.