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Lady Szentirmay gained her object. Her week's residence at Kárpáthy Castle had completely changed Fanny's position in the eyes of the great world. Even the most prejudiced became more favourably disposed towards the woman whom Lady Szentirmay freely admitted to her friendship. The proudest dowagers, who hitherto considered that they would be showing infinite condescension if they appeared at a festival where a ci-devant shopkeeper's daughter would play the part of mistress of the house, now began to think that their condescension might bear a little paring down. Rigorously virtuous ladies, who had doubted within themselves whether it were befitting to bring their youthful daughters to thread the labyrinths full of Eleusianian mysteries at Kárpáthy Castle, now ordered their dresses from the dressmakers without the slightest apprehension. The appearance of Lady Szentirmay was the surest guarantee of virtue and propriety. The mere fact that Fanny had gained Flora's friendship made her own domestics regard her with quite different eyes, and even Squire John himself began to understand what sort of a wife he had won; and so the nimbus of gentility began to shine around her.
The whole day the two ladies might have been[Pg 261] seen together, engaged in their great and difficult labours. No smiling, please! The work was really great and difficult. It is easy enough for us men-folk to say, "I will give a great dinner-party to-morrow, or a month hence; and I will invite the whole country-side to it. I will invite not only those I know, but those I have never seen;" but it is our women-folk who have to take thought for it. It is they who have to bear in mind everything necessary to make it all adequate and splendid; it is they who have to take into consideration the thousand and one pretensions, partialities, and caprices of a whole army of guests. It would not have been surprising if the new housewife had not known where to begin first; but under Flora's direction everything went along as smoothly as possible. She was used to such things. She remembered everything, and yet she always appealed so artfully to Fanny as to how this or that ought to be done, that, had not Fanny had the keenest appreciation of her friend's delicacy and tact, she might very easily have fancied that it was she herself who managed everything. At any rate Squire John henceforth lived in the conviction that his consort was as much at home in all these mighty matters as if she had lived all her life in the castles of countesses.
And when the evening came, and they were alone together, and had time to converse, how many sage and pleasant counsels Fanny listened to from her friend! She did nothing but listen to, nothing but look upon those delicate, eloquent lips, and those still more eloquent, sparkling eyes, from which she was beginning to learn happiness. At such times they would send away their ladies' maids, and help each other with their evening toilets, and then they would talk freely and merrily of the great world and its follies.
First of all, the list of names, which had caused[Pg 262] Mr. Varga so much sweat and anguish, would be brought forth, and then they would sit down together and talk scandal of their neighbours, and a delightful joke it was too.
For there's a difference between scandal and scandal. To circulate false reports of the people you know, to lay hold upon their most recondite faults and carefully pass them on from hand to hand, to undermine the good name of your acquaintances, - that is certainly not a nice occupation, I call it ungentlemanly scandal. But to be acquainted with the vices of the world, and communicate them to innocent souls liable to err; to warn and call the attention of the sensitive and the tottering to the thorns, the flints, the vermin, and the pitfalls which beset their path, - that is a proper thing to do in season, and I call it gentlemanly scandal - although many who read these lines will perhaps prefer to call it nonsense.
We will therefore confine ourselves to gentlemanly scandal, and let us take the men first. It is not I who do it, remember, but these two young women who have got hold of such an interesting list. If I had a hand in it, I should certainly begin with the ladies.
"Here's one right at the top," said Lady Szentirmay, "let us begin with him. If he were an ordinary man instead of a nobleman, they would call him badly behaved. He thinks ill of every woman except his own wife, for of her he never thinks at all, and is violent and passionate besides. When he flies into a rage he does not pick his words, nor looks about to see whether women or only men are near. In the most mixed society, where two or three young girls at least must be present, he tells such queer stories that even the more sensitive of the men cannot but blush. Yet he is a great patriot, whose name is well known and admired; so he claims respect, and must not be[Pg 263] blamed like other men. The respect in which he is held, however, is the best weapon to use against him. He will pay court to you impetuously, and you will not be able to avoid him; but all you have to do is to praise him for his political virtues. That always holds him in check. I have tried it, and never known it to fail."
"Here comes another high and mighty gentleman," resumed the Countess. "If he had not a title, I don't know that the world would recognize him at all. I have never been able to discover what qualities he possesses, though I have the privilege of meeting him once a month. One thing, however, I can label him with: he has a tremendous appetite, and yet is always complaining that he cannot eat. He is a very amiable man: before dinner he complains that he has no appetite, and after dinner that he has over-eaten himself, and if you don't offer him anything he sulks and starves. He doesn't give much trouble therefore."
"Here is a dear silly, Count Gregory Erdey. He is the most delightful fellow in the world, and can keep the whole company in convulsions with his quips and cranks. He can imitate the absurdities of costume of every nation, and can present you with an Englishman, a Spaniard, a Frenchman, and a Jew by a mere twist of his hat. The very simplicity of his absurdity makes him the most harmless of men. You cannot imagine him giving offence to any one. He would be incapable of deceiving a girl of sixteen. His whole ambition is to make people laugh, and all the lovers of laughter are on his side."[Pg 264]
"Let us proceed. Count Karvay Louis, a true man of the world à la Talleyrand. He observes every one, and is very particular that every one should observe him. He only puts a question to you in order to discover how far you are unable to answer him - it is a positive trap, the consequences of which you cannot possibly foresee. Then he has a trick of sulking for a whole year without saying why; the merest trifle, a letter to him misdirected, is sufficient to upset him till his dying day. If any one comes to see you when he is with you, and this somebody should be lower in rank than himself, and you should sin against the rules of etiquette by rising from your seat instead of merely bowing - Louis will lose his temper, and say that you have insulted him. And yet he will never give any one a hint as to what is likely to offend him and what not."
"And now comes Count Sárosdy, the főispán. He is a worthy, good-natured man, but a frightful aristocrat. It delights him to do good to the peasants and the poor, but don't ask him to make the acquaintance of his fellow-men. No tenantry in the whole of Hungary is better off than his, but he will not have a non-noble person in his service even as a clerk. You will find he will be a little stiff towards you at first, but fortunately he has a good heart, and there are always keys wherewith to open a good heart. It will be no easy matter to win him over to more liberal sentiments, but if we both combine against him, victory will be assured.
"First of all comes the wife of the aristocratic főispán. She is a cockered, discontented dame, who has swooned as many times as other women have sighed. You might stand upon burning embers more comfortably than before her; for you may be sure that she will not approve of anything you may say, do, or even think. If any one crosses his legs in her presence, she faints; if a cat strays into the room, she will have convulsions; if a knife is put across a fork, she will not sit down to table; if there are roses outside in the garden, she will perceive the smell through double window-panes, and faint, so that no flowers can be kept in the room where she may happen to be. You must not let anybody in a blue dress sit down at the same table as herself, for that colour is horrible to her, and she has convulsions the moment she sees it. Finally, you will do well to talk of nothing at all in her presence, for the slightest thing is likely to upset her nerves.
"Ah! next comes the Countess Kereszty. She is an excellent woman. She has a tall, muscular, masculine figure, with thick, broad eyebrows. She never speaks in a voice lower than what is usually required for commanding a regiment; while her gruffest voice is sufficient to utterly embarrass a nervous man, especially as she has a trick of perpetually interrupting the person talking to her with her 'How - why - wherefore's?' and, when she begins to laugh, the whole room trembles. She dragoons every assembly which she honours with her presence; and whomsoever she is angry with had much better have been born blind. Our very young men have a cold ague fit when they see[Pg 266] her, for she inspires them with as much terror as any professor, and, besides that, can speak fluent Latin, has the code at her fingers' ends, can hold her own against the most astute of advocates, drinks like a fish, and revels in tobacco. It is true she does not drive her own horses; but, should the coachman drive badly, she is quite capable of snatching the whip from his hand and belabouring him with the handle. For the rest, she is the best-hearted creature in the world, and readily makes friends. Kiss her hand, and call her 'My lady sister,' and you need not have the slightest fear of her; for she will love you, make herself your champion, and woe betide whomsoever dares to disparage you behind your back when she is present, for she will make them stampede in every direction.
"And now we come to Lady Szépkiesdy. She is a quiet, silent woman, whom it is impossible to offend. Her husband has found out from experience that nothing pains her; but, on the other hand, there is nothing that can make her happy. And her whole face, her whole figure, seems to express but one wish, but one desire - the longing to be under the sod as soon as possible."
"And she is also tormented by the knowledge that every pretty face she sees will cause her misery involuntarily; for her husband pays his court to every one of them in her presence. She was esteemed a great beauty once upon a time; but care and sorrow have made her quite old within the last two years."
"And now let me introduce you to Madame George Málnay. Beware of her. She will be eternally flattering you, in the hope that some secret, some unguarded word may escape you. She is a veritable Mephistopheles in female form.[Pg 267] She is the enemy of every one she knows; but whenever she meets you she will kiss and embrace you, till you fancy she is quite in love with you. It is of no use quarrelling with her. The very next day she will embrace, kiss, and traduce you, as if nothing had happened. The best way is to keep clear of her. Receive her, therefore, with a cold, forbidding countenance. She'll requite you, perhaps, by calling you boorish and underbred behind your back; but that is the kindest thing you can expect from her."
"Well, she is - like the rest of them - a treacherous scandalmonger, with an ill word for every one, who takes a delight in picking out people's most secret faults; but you need not fear her, for she loves you sincerely, and will never betray, disparage, or injure you behind your back. Have you not found that out already?"
Fanny, half-laughing half-weeping, hid her head in her friend's bosom, and embraced her tightly; and then they kissed each other, and laughed at the facility with which they also had fallen into the scandalizing ways of the world.[Pg 268]