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Title: A Bride of the Plains
Author: Orczy, Emmuska Orczy, Baroness, 1865-1947
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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A BRIDE OF THE PLAINS

by

BARONESS ORCZY

      *      *      *      *      *

By BARONESS ORCZY

A BRIDE OF THE PLAINS
THE LAUGHING CAVALIER
"UNTO CAESAR"
EL DORADO
MEADOWSWEET
THE NOBLE ROGUE
THE HEART OF A WOMAN
PETTICOAT RULE

GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
NEW YORK

      *      *      *      *      *


A BRIDE OF THE PLAINS

by

BARONESS ORCZY

Author of "The Laughing Cavalier," "The Scarlet
Pimpernel," "El Dorado," "Meadowsweet," Etc., Etc.



New York
George H. Doran Company

Copyright, 1915,
by George H. Doran Company



TO THE MEMORY OF
LOUIS KOSSUTH

What would you have said now--O patriot and selfless hero--had you lived
to see the country which you loved so well, for whose liberty and
national dignity you fought with such unswerving devotion--what would
you say, could you see her now--tied to Austria's chariot wheel, the
catspaw and the tool of that Teutonic race which you abhorred? Thank God
you were spared the sight which surely would have broken your heart! You
never lived to see your country free. Alas! no man for many generations
to come will see that now. The Magyar peasant lad--upon the vast,
mysterious plains of his native soil--will alone continue to dream of
national liberty, of religious and political freedom, and vaguely hope
that some day another Louis Kossuth will arise again and restore to him
and to his race that sense of dignity, of justice and of right which the
Teuton has striven for centuries to crush.

EMMUSKA ORCZY.

Snowfield,
  Bearsted,
    Kent.



CONTENTS

CHAPTER                                                   PAGE

I.      "GOD BLESS THEM ALL! THEY ARE GOOD LADS."            9
II.     "MONEY WON'T BUY EVERYTHING."                       16
III.    "YOU WILL WAIT FOR ME."                             32
IV.     "NOW THAT HE IS DEAD."                              43
V.      "LOVE WILL FOLLOW."                                 56
VI.     "I DON'T WISH TO MARRY; NOT YET."                   64
VII.    "THEY ARE JEWS AND WE ARE HUNGARIANS."              73
VIII.   "I PUT THE BUNDA AWAY SOMEWHERE."                   84
IX.     "THEN, AS NOW, MAY GOD PROTECT YOU."                93
X.      "THE BEST WAY OF ALL."                             101
XI.     "AFTER THAT, HAPPINESS WILL BEGIN."                106
XII.    "IT IS TOO LATE."                                  115
XIII.   "HE MUST MAKE YOU HAPPY."                          125
XIV.    "IT IS TRUE."                                      133
XV.     "THAT IS FAIR, I THINK."                           137
XVI.    "THE WATERS OF THE MAROS FLOW SLUGGISHLY."         143
XVII.   "I AM HERE TO SEE THAT YOU BE KIND TO HER."        149
XVIII.  "I MUST PUNISH HER."                               162
XIX.    "NOW GO AND FETCH THE KEY."                        174
XX.     "YOU HAPPEN TO BE OF MY RACE AND OF MY BLOOD."     186
XXI.    "JEALOUS, LIKE A MADMAN."                          199
XXII.   "I GO WHERE I SHALL BE MORE WELCOME."              211
XXIII.  "ON THE EVE OF ONE'S WEDDING DAY TOO."             226
XXIV.   "IF YOU LOVED ME."                                 232
XXV.    "IN ANY CASE ELSA IS NOT FOR YOU."                 237
XXVI.   "WHAT HAD ANDOR DONE?"                             251
XXVII.  "THE SHADOW THAT FELL FROM THE TALL SUNFLOWERS."   257
XXVIII. "WE SHALL HEAR OF ANOTHER TRAGEDY BY AND BY."      265
XXIX.   "SOME DAY."                                        272
XXX.    "KYRIE ELEISON."                                   282
XXXI.   "WHAT ABOUT ME?"                                   291
XXXII.  "THE LAND BEYOND THE SUNSET."                      304



A BRIDE OF THE PLAINS



CHAPTER I

"God bless them all! they are good lads."


It was now close on eight o'clock and more than two hours ago since
first the dawn broke over that low-lying horizon line which seems so far
away, and tinged the vast immensity of the plain first with grey and
then with mauve and pale-toned emerald, with rose and carmine and
crimson and blood-red, until the sun--triumphant and glorious at
last--woke the sunflowers from their sleep, gilded every tiny blade of
grass and every sprig of rosemary, and caused every head of stately
maize to quiver with delight at the warmth of his kiss.

The plain stretched its limitless expanse as far as human eye can
reach--a sea of tall straight stems, with waves of brilliant green and
plume-crowned crests shimmering like foam in the sunlight.

As far as human eye can see!--and further, much further still!--the sea
of maize, countless upright stems, hundreds of thousands of emerald
green sheaths crowned with flaxen tendrils like a maiden's hair; down on
the ground--a carpet for the feet of the majestic corn--hundreds and
thousands of orange-coloured pumpkins turning their huge shiny carcases
to the ripening rays of the sun, and all around in fantastic lines,
rows of tall sunflowers, a blaze of amber, with thick velvety hearts
laden with seed.

And all of it stretching out apparently to infinity beyond that horizon
line which is still hidden by a silvery haze, impalpable womb that
cradles the life-giving heat.

Stately stems of maize--countless as the pebbles on a beach, as the
specks of foam upon the crest of a wave, limitless as the sea and like
the sea mutable, ever-changing, restless--bending to every breath of the
summer breeze, full of strange, sweet sounds, of moanings and of sighs,
as the emerald sheaths tremble in the wind, or down below the bright
yellow carcases of the pumpkins crack and shiver in the growing heat.

An ocean of tall maize and gaily-coloured pumpkins as far as the eye can
reach, and long, dividing lines of amber-coloured sunflowers, vivid and
riotous, flaunting their crude colouring in the glowing sunlight.

Here and there the dull, dark green of hemp breaks the unvarying
stretches of maize, and far away there is a tanya (cottage) with a group
of stunted acacias near it, and a well whose tall, gaunt arm stretches
weirdly up to the sky, whilst to the south the sluggish Maros winds its
slow course lazily toward the parent stream.

An ocean of maize and of pumpkins and of sunflowers, with here and there
the tall, crested stems of hemp, and above it the sky--blue and already
glowing through the filmy mist which every minute grows more ethereal
and more impalpable as veil upon veil of heat-holding vapours are drawn
from before its face.

A beautiful morning in mid-September, and yet in all this vast immensity
of fertile land and ripening fruit there is no sign of human toil, no
sound of beast or creaking waggon, no sign of human life around that
distant tanya.

The tiny lizard in his comfortable position on the summit of a gigantic
pumpkin can continue his matutinal sleep in peace; the stork can
continue undisturbed his preparations for his impending long voyage over
seas. Man has not yet thought to break by travail or by song the
peaceful silence of the plain.

And yet the village lies not very far away, close to the Maros; the
small, low, hemp-thatched houses scarcely peep above the sea of
tall-stemmed maize, only the white-washed tower of the church with its
red-painted roof stands out clear and abrupt against the sky.

And now the sharp, cracked sound of the Elevation bell breaks the
silence of the summer's morning. The good Pater Bonifácius is saying
Mass; he, at any rate, is astir and busy with his day's work and
obligations. Surely it is strange that at so late an hour in
mid-September, with the maize waiting to be gathered in, the population
of Marosfalva should still be absent from the fields.

Hej! But stranger, what would you! Such a day is this fourteenth of
September.

What? You did not know it? The fourteenth of September, the ugliest,
blackest, most God-forsaken day in the whole year!

You did not know? You cannot guess? Then what kind of a stranger are you
if you do not know that on this hideous fourteenth of September all the
finest lads of Marosfalva and the villages around are taken away by the
abominable government? Away for three years to be made into soldiers, to
drill and to march, to carry guns and bayonets, to obey words of command
that they don't understand, to be packed off from place to place--from
Arad to Bistricz, from Kecskemét to Nagyvárad, aye? and as far as Bosnia
too--wherever that may be!

Yes, kind Sir! the lads of Marosfalva and of Fekete, of Kender and of
Görcz, are taken away just like that, in batches every year, packed into
one of those detestable railways like so many heads of cattle and
separated from their mothers, their sisters, their sweethearts, all
because a hateful government for which the people of Marosfalva do not
care one brass fillér, has so decreed it.

Mind you, it is the same in all the other villages, and in every town in
Hungary--so at least we have been given to understand--but we have
nothing to do with other villages or with the towns: they do just as the
good God wills them to do. It is our lads--the lads of Marosfalva and
Kender and Fekete and Görcz--who have to be packed off in train-loads
to-day and taken away from us for three years.

Three years! Why, the lad is a mere child when he goes--one-and-twenty
on his last birthday, bless him!--still wanting a mother's care of his
stomach and his clothes, and a father's heavy stick across his back from
time to time to keep him from drink and too much love-making.

Three years! When he comes back he is a man, has notions of his own, has
seen the world and cares no more about his native village and the narrow
cottage where he used to run in and out bare-footed, bare-chested,
bare-headed and comfortably dirty from head to foot.

Three years! And what are the chances that he come back at all? Bosnia?
Where in the world is that? And if you are a soldier, why then you go to
war, you get shot at, killed may be, or at any rate maimed. Three years!
You may never come back! And when you do you are not the same youngster
whom your mother kissed, your father whacked, and your sweetheart wept
over.

Three years! Nay, but 'tis a lifetime. Mother is old, she may never see
her son again. Girls are vain and fickle, they will turn their thoughts
in other directions--there are the men who have done their military
service, who have paid their toll to the abominable government up at
Budapest and who are therefore free to court and free to marry.

Aye! Aye! That's how it is. They must go through with it, though they
hate it all--every moment of it. They hate to be packed into railway
carriages like so many dried heads of maize in a barn, they hate to wear
the heavy cloth clothes, the hard boots, the leather pouches and belts.
My God, how they hate it!

And the rude alien sergeant, with his "Vorwärts!" and "Marsch!" and
"Rechts" and "Links"--I ask you in the name of the Holy Virgin what kind
of gibberish is that?

But they must all go!--all those, at least, who are whole and sound in
body. Bless them! They are sound enough when they go! It is when they
come back! . . .

Yes! They must all go, those who are sound in eyes and wind and limb,
and it is very difficult to cheat the commission who come to take our
lads away. There was Benkó, for instance; he starved himself for three
months this summer, hoping to reduce his chest measurements by a few
needful centimètres; but it was no use. The doctor who examined him said
that with regular food and plenty of exercise he would soon put on more
flesh, and he would get both for the next three years. And János--you
remember?--he chopped off one of his toes--thinking that would get him
off those hated three years of service; but it seems there is a new
decree by which the lads need not be possessed of all ten toes in order
to serve the hateful government.

No, no! It is no use trying to get out of it. They measure you, and
bang your chest and your back, they look at your eyes and make you open
your mouth to look at your teeth, but anyhow they take you away for
three years.

They make you swear that you will faithfully serve your country and your
King during that time, that you will obey your superiors, and follow
your leader wherever he may command, over land and by water. By water! I
ask you! When there was Albert and Jenö who could not bear even the
sight of water; they would not have gone in a boat on the Maros if you
had offered them a gold piece each! How could they swear that they would
follow some fool of a German officer on water?

They could not swear that. They knew they could not do it. But they were
clapped in prison like common malefactors and treated like brigands and
thieves until they did swear. And after that--well! they had once to
cross the Theiss in a ferry-boat--they were made to do it!

Oh, no! Nothing happened to them then, but Albert came back after his
three years' service, with two of his front teeth gone, and we all know
that Jenö now is little better than an idiot.

So now you know, stranger, why we at Marosfalva call the fourteenth day
of September the very blackest in the whole calendar, and why at eight
o'clock in the morning nobody is at work in the fields.

For the fourteenth day being such a black one, we must all make the most
of the few hours that come before it. At nine o'clock of that miserable
morning the packing of our lads into the train will commence, but until
then they are making merry, bless them! They are true Hungarians, you
know! They will dance, and they will sing, they will listen to gipsy
music and kiss the girls so long as there is breath in their body, so
long as they are free to do it.

At nine o'clock to-day they cease to be free men, they are under the
orders of corporals and sergeants and officers who will command them to
go "Vorwärts" and "Rechts" and "Links" and all that God-forsaken
gibberish, and put them in irons and on bread and water if they do not
obey. But yesterday, on the thirteenth of September that is, they were
still free to do as they liked: they could dance and sing and get drunk
as much as they chose.

So the big barn that belongs to Ignácz Goldstein, the Jew, is thrown
open for a night's dancing and music and jollification. At five o'clock
in the afternoon the gipsies tuned up; there was a supper which lasted
many hours, after which the dancing began. The first csárdás was struck
up at eight o'clock last evening, the last one is being danced now at
eight o'clock in the morning, while the whole plain lies in silence
under the shimmering sky, and while Pater Bonifácius reads his mass all
alone in the little church, and prays fervently for the lads who are
going away to-day for three years: away from his care and his tender,
paternal attention, away from their homes, their weeping mothers and
sorrowing sweethearts.

God bless them all! They are good lads, but weak, impulsive, easily led
toward good or evil. They are dancing now, when they should be praying,
but God bless them all! They are good lads!



CHAPTER II

"Money won't buy everything."


Inside the barn the guttering candles were burning low. No one thought
of blowing them out, so they were just left to smoke and to smoulder,
and to help render the atmosphere even more stifling than it otherwise
would have been.

The heat has become almost unbearable--unbearable, that is, to anyone
not wholly intent on pleasure to the exclusion of every other sensation,
every other consciousness. The barn built of huge pine logs,
straw-thatched and raftered, is filled to overflowing with people--men,
women, even children--all bent upon one great, all-absorbing
object--that object, forgetfulness.

The indifferent, the stolid, may call it what he will, but it is the
common wish to forget that has brought all these people--young and
old--together in Ignácz Goldstein's barn this night--the desire to
forget that hideous, fateful fourteenth of September which comes with
such heartrending regularity year after year--the desire to forget that
the lads, the flower of the neighbouring villages, are going away to-day
. . . for three years?--nay! very likely for ever!--three years! and all
packed up like cattle in a railway truck! and put under the orders of
some brutal sergeant who is not Hungarian, and can only say "Vorwärts!"
or "Marsch!" and is backed in his arbitrary commands by the whole weight
of government, King and country.

For three years!--and there is always war going on somewhere--and that
awful Bosnia! wherever it may be--lads from Hungarian villages go there
sound in body and in limb and come back bent with ague, halt, lame or
blind.

Three years! More like for ever!

And therefore the whole population of Marosfalva and of the villages
round spends its last happy four-and-twenty hours in trying to forget
that nine o'clock of the fourteenth day of September is approaching with
sure and giant strides; everyone has a wish to forget; the parents and
grandparents, the sisters, the sweethearts, the lads themselves! The
future is so hideous, let the joy of the present kill all thoughts of
those coming three years.

Marosfalva is the rallying-point, where this final annual jollification
takes place. They all come over on the thirteenth from Fekete and Görcz,
and Kender, in order to dance and to sing at Marosfalva in the barn
which belongs to Ignácz Goldstein the Jew. Marosfalva boasts of a
railway station and it is from here that at nine o'clock in the morning
the lads will be entrained; so all day on the thirteenth there has been
a pilgrimage along the cross-roads from the outlying villages and
hamlets round Marosfalva--a stream of men and women and young children
all determined to forget for a few hours the coming separation of the
morrow; by five o'clock in the afternoon all those had assembled who had
meant to come and dancing in the barn had begun.

Ignácz Goldstein's barn has always been the setting in which the final
drama of the happy year is acted. After that night spent there in
dancing and music and merry-making, down goes the curtain on the comedy
of life and the tragedy of tears begins.

Since five o'clock in the afternoon the young people have been
dancing--waltzing, polkaing, dancing the csárdás--mostly the csárdás,
the dance of the nation, of the people, the most exhilarating, most
entrancing, most voluptuous dance that feet of man have ever trod. The
girls and lads are indefatigable, the slow and languorous Lassu (slow
movement) alternates with the mad, merry csárdás, they twirl and twist,
advance, retreat, separate and reunite in a mad, intoxicating whirl.
Small booted feet stamp on the rough wooden floor, sending up clouds of
dust. What matter if the air becomes more and more stifling? There are
tears and sighs to be stifled too.

"Ho, there, czigány! Play up! Faster! Faster! 'Tis not a funeral dirge
you are playing."

The gipsy musicians, hot and perspiring, have blown and scraped and
banged for fifteen solid hours; no one would ever think of suggesting
that a gipsy needed rest; the clarinetist, it is true, rolled off his
seat at one time, and had to be well shaken ere he could blow again, but
the leader--as good a leader, mind you, as could be found in the
kingdom--had only paused when the dancers were exhausted, or when bite
and sup were placed before him. There they were, perched up on a rough
platform made up of packing-cases borrowed from the station-master; the
czimbalom player in the centre, his fat, brown hands wield the tiny
clappers with unerring precision, up and down the strings, with that
soft, lingering tone which partakes of the clavecins and the harp alike.
At the back the double-bass, lean and dark, with jet-black eyes that
stare stolidly at his leader.

There is a second fiddle, and the fat clarinetist and, of course, the
leader--he whose match could not be found in the kingdom. He stands on
the very edge of the rough platform, his fiddle under his chin, and he
stoops well forward, so that his hands and instrument almost touch the
foremost of the dancing pairs.

They--the dancers--crowd closely round the gipsy band, for so must the
csárdás be danced, as near the musicians as possible, as close together
as the wide, sweeping petticoats of the girls will allow.

Such petticoats! One on the top of the other, ten or a dozen or more,
and all of different colour: the girls are proud of these
petticoats--the number of them is a sign of prosperity; and now as they
dance and swing from the hips these petticoats fly out, caught by the
currents of air until they look like gargantuan showers of
vividly-coloured petals shaken by giant hands.

Above the petticoats the girls' waists look slim in the dark,
tight-fitting corslet, above which again rises the rich, olive-tinted
breast and throat; full white sleeves of linen crown the bare, ruddy
arms, and ribbons of national colours--red, white and green--float from
the shoulders and the waist.

The smooth, thick hair is closely plaited, from the crown of the head in
two long, tight plaits; it is drawn rigidly away from the forehead,
giving that quaint, hard finish to the round, merry face which is so
characteristic of the Asiatic ancestry.

Each one of them a little picture which seems to have stepped straight
out of a Velasquez canvas, the bell-shaped skirt, the stiff corslet, the
straight, tight hair and round eyes full of vitality.

The men wear their linen shirt and full trousers with fringed,
embroidered ends, the leather waistcoat and broad belt covered with
metal bosses and wrought with bright-coloured woollen threads. They get
very excited in the mazes of the dance, they shout to the gipsies to
play faster and ever faster; each holds his partner tightly round the
slim waist and swings her round and round, till she stumbles, giddy and
almost faint in his arms.

And round the dancers in a semicircle the spectators stand in a dense
crowd--the older folk and the girls who have not secured partners--they
watch and watch, indefatigable like the dancers, untiring like the
musicians. And behind this semicircle, in the dark corners of the barn,
the children foot it too, with the same ardour, the same excitement as
their elders.

The last csárdás of this memorable night! It is eight o'clock now, and
through the apertures in the log wall the brilliant light of this late
summer's morning enters triumphant and crude.

Andor is dancing with Elsa--pretty, fair-haired Elsa, the daughter of
old Kapus Benkó,[1] an old reprobate, if ever there was one. Such a
handsome couple they look. Is it not a shame that Andor must go
to-day--for three years, perhaps for ever?

[Footnote 1: In Hungary the surname precedes the Christian name.]

The tears that have struggled up to Elsa's tender blue eyes, despite her
will to keep them back, add to the charm of her engaging personality,
they help to soften the somewhat serious expression of her young face.
Her cheeks are glowing with the excitement of the dance, her graceful
figure bends to the pressure of Andor's arm around her waist.

Ten or a dozen cotton petticoats are tied round that slim waist of hers,
no two of a like colour, and as she twists and twirls in Andor's arms
the petticoats fly out, till she looks like a huge flower of many hues
with superposed corollas, blue, green, pink and yellow, beneath which
her small feet shod in boots of brilliant leather look like two crimson
stamens.

The tight-fitting corslet bodice and the full, white sleeves of the
shift make her figure appear peculiarly slim and girlish, and her bare
throat and shoulders are smooth and warmly tinted like some luscious
fruit.

No wonder that Andor feels this dance, this movement, the music, the
girl's sweet, quick breath, going to his head like wine. Elsa was always
pretty, always dainty and gentle, but now she is excited, tearful at the
coming parting, and by all the saints a more exquisite woman never came
out of Paradise!

The semicircle of spectators composed of older folk draws closer round
the dancers, but the other couples remain comparatively unheeded. It is
Elsa and Andor whom everyone is watching.

He is tall and broad-shouldered, with the supple limbs of a young stag,
and the mad, irresponsible movements of a colt. His dark eyes shine like
two stars out of his sun-burnt face; his muscular arms encircle Elsa's
fine waist with a grip that is almost masterful. The wide sleeves of his
linen shirt flutter above his shoulders till they look like wings and he
like some messenger of the gods come to carry this exquisite prey off
from the earth.

"What a well-matched couple!" murmur the older women as they watch.

"Elsa will be the beauty of the village within the next year, mark what
I say!" added a kindly old soul, turning to her neighbour--a slatternly,
ill-kempt, middle-aged woman, who was casting looks on Andor and Elsa
that were none too kind.

"Hm!" retorted the latter, with sour mien, "then 'tis as well that that
good-for-nothing will be safely out of the way."

"I would not call Andor good-for-nothing, Irma néni,"[2] said one of the
men who stood close by, "he has not had much chance to do anything for
himself yet. . . ."

[Footnote 2: Aunt Irma--the words aunt (_néni_) and uncle (_bácsi_) are
used indiscriminately in Hungary when addressing elderly people, and do
not necessarily imply any relationship.]

"And he never will," snapped the woman, with a click of her thin jaws,
"I know the sort--always going to do wonderful things in a future which
never comes. Well! at any rate while he is a soldier they will teach him
that he is no better than other lads that come from the same village,
and not even as good, seeing that he has never any money in his wallet."

"Andor will be rich some day," suggested the kindly old soul who had
first spoken, "don't you forget it, Irma néni."

"I have no special wish to remember it, my good Kati," retorted Irma
dryly.

"I thought," murmured the other, "seeing that Andor has really courted
Elsa this summer that . . . perhaps . . ."

"My daughter has plenty of admirers," said Irma, in her bitter-toned,
snappish way, "and has no reason to wait for one who only may be rich
some day."

"Bah! Lakatos Pál cannot live for ever. Andor will have every fillér of
his money when he dies, and Pál will cut up very well."

"Lakatos Pál is a youngish man--not fifty, I imagine," concluded Irma
with a sneer. "He may live another thirty years, and Elsa would be an
old woman herself by then."

The other woman said nothing more after that. It was no use arguing the
point. Irma was the wife of old Kapus--both of them as shiftless,
thriftless, ill-conditioned a pair as ever stole the daylight from God
in order to waste it in idleness. How they came to be blessed with such
a pretty, winning daughter as Elsa an all too-indulgent God only knew.

What, however, was well known throughout the village was that as Kapus
and his wife never had a crown to bless themselves with, and had never
saved enough to earn a rest for themselves in their old age, they had
long ago determined that their daughter should be the means of bringing
prosperity to them as soon as she was old enough for the
marriage-market.

Elsa was beautiful! Thank the good God for that! Kapus had never saved
enough to give her a marriage-portion either, and had she been ugly, or
only moderately pretty, it would have been practically impossible to
find a husband for her. But if she became the beauty of Marosfalva--as
indeed she was already--there would be plenty of rich men who would be
willing to waive the question of the marriage-portion for the sake of
the glory of having captured the loveliest matrimonial prize in the
whole countryside.

"Leave Irma néni alone, mother," said the man who had first taken up the
cudgels in favour of Andor; "we all know that she has very ambitious
views for Elsa. Please God she may not be disappointed."

From more than one group of spectators came similar or other comments on
pretty Elsa and her partner. The general consensus of opinion seemed to
be that it was as well Andor was going away for three years. Old Kapus
and his wife would never allow their daughter to marry a man with
pockets as empty as their own, and it was no use waiting for dead men's
shoes. Lakatos Pál, the rich uncle, from whom Andor was bound to inherit
some day, was little past the prime of life. Until he died how would
Andor and a penniless wife contrive to live? For Lakatos Pál was a miser
and hoarded his money--moreover, he was a confirmed bachelor and
woman-hater; he would do nothing for Andor if the young man chose to
marry.

Ah, well! it was a pity! for a better-looking, better-matched pair could
not be found in the whole county of Arad.

"Lucky for you, Béla, that Andor goes off to-day for three years," said
a tall, handsome girl to her neighbour; "you would not have had much
chance with Elsa otherwise."

The man beside her made no immediate reply; he was standing with legs
wide apart, his hands buried in the pockets of his trousers. At the
girl's words, which were accompanied by a provocative glance from her
large, dark eyes, he merely shrugged his wide shoulders, and jingled
some money in his pockets.

The girl laughed.

"Money won't buy everything, you know, my good Béla," she said.

"It will buy most things," he retorted.

"The consent of Irma néni, for instance," she suggested.

"And a girl's willingness to exchange the squalor of a mud hut for
comfort, luxury, civilization."

Unlike most of the young men here to-night, who wore the characteristic
costume of the countryside--full, white linen shirt and trousers, broad
leather belt, embossed and embroidered and high leather boots, Béla was
dressed in a town suit of dark-coloured cloth, cut by a provincial
tailor from Arad. He was short of stature, though broad-shouldered and
firmly knit, but his face was singularly ugly, owing to the terrible
misfortune which had befallen him when he lost his left eye. The scar
and hollow which were now where the eye had once been gave the whole
face a sinister expression, which was further accentuated by the
irregular line of the eyebrows and the sneer which habitually hovered
round the full, hard lips.

Béla was not good to look on; and this is a serious defect in a young
man in Hungary, but he was well endowed with other attributes which made
him very attractive to the girls. He had a fine and lucrative position,
seeing that he was his Lordship's bailiff, and had an excellent salary,
a good house and piece of land of his own, as well as the means of
adding considerably to his income, since his lordship left him to
conclude many a bargain over corn and plums, and horses and pigs. Erös
Béla was rich and influential. He lived in a stone-built house, which
had a garden round it, and at least five rooms inside, with a separate
kitchen and a separate living-room, therefore he was a very eligible
young man and one greatly favoured by mothers of penniless girls; nor
did the latter look askance on Béla despite the fact that he had only
one eye and that never a pleasant word escaped his lips.

Even now he was looking on at the dancing with a heavy scowl upon his
face. The girl near him--she with the dark, Oriental eyes and the thin,
hooked nose, Klara Goldstein the Jewess--gave him a nudge with her
brown, pointed elbow.

"I wouldn't let Andor see the temper you are in, my friend," she said,
with a sarcastic little laugh; "we don't want any broken bones before
the train goes off this morning."

"There will be broken bones if he does not look out," muttered the other
between his teeth, as he drew a tightly clenched fist from his pocket.

"Bah! why should you care?" retorted Klara, who seemed to take an impish
delight in teasing the young man, "you are not in love with Elsa, are
you?"

"What is it to you?" growled Béla surlily.

"Nothing," she replied, "only that we have always been friends, you and
I--eh, Béla?"

And she turned her large, lustrous eyes upon him, peering at him through
her long black lashes. She was a handsome girl, of course, and she knew
it--knew how to use her eyes, and make the men forget that she was only
a Jewess, a thing to be played with but despised--no better than a gipsy
wench, not for a Hungarian peasant to look upon as an equal, to think of
as a possible mate.

Béla, whose blood was hot in him, what with the wine which he had drunk
and the jealous temper which was raging in his brain, was nevertheless
sober enough not to meet the languorous glances which the handsome
Jewess bestowed so freely upon him.

"We are still friends--are we not, Béla?" she reiterated slowly.

"Of course--why not?" he grunted, "what has our friendship to do with
Andor and Elsa?"

"Only this: that I don't like to see a friend of mine make a fool of
himself over a girl who does not care one hairpin for him."

Béla smothered a curse.

"How do you know that?" he asked.

"Everyone knows that Elsa is over head and ears in love with Andor, and
just won't look at anyone else."

"Oho!" he sneered, "everyone knows that, do they? Well! you can tell
that busy-body everyone from me that before the year is out Kapus Elsa
will be tokened to me, and that when Andor comes back from having
marched and drilled and paced the barrack-yard he will find that Kapus
Elsa is Kapus no longer, but Erös, the wife of Erös Béla, the mother of
his first-born. To this I have made up my mind, and when I make up my
mind to anything, neither God nor the devil dares to stand in my way."

"Hush! hush! in Heaven's name," she protested quickly, "the neighbours
will hear you."

He shrugged his shoulders, and murmured something very uncomplimentary
anent the ultimate destination of those neighbours.

Some of them certainly had heard what he said, for he had not been at
pains to lower his voice. His riches and his position had made him
something of an oracle in Marosfalva, and he held all the peasantry in
such contempt that he cared little what everyone thought of him. He
therefore remained indifferent and sulky now whilst many glances of
good-humoured mockery were levelled upon him.

No one, of course, thought any the worse of Erös Béla for desiring the
beauty of the village for himself--he was rich and could marry whom he
pleased, and that he should loudly and openly proclaim his determination
to possess himself of the beautiful prize was only in accordance with
the impulsive, hot-headed, somewhat bombastic temperament of the Magyars
themselves.

Fortunately those chiefly concerned in Erös Béla's loudly spoken
determination had heard nothing of the colloquy between him and the
Jewess. The wild, loud music of the csárdás, their own gyrations and
excitement, shut them out entirely from their surroundings.

Their stamping, tripping, twirling feet had carried them into another
world altogether; Ignácz Goldstein's barn had become a fairy bower, they
themselves were spirits living in that realm of bliss; there was no
longer any impending separation, no military service, no blank and
desolate three years! Andor, his arm tightly clasped round Elsa's waist,
his head bowed till his lips touched her bare shoulder, contrived to
whisper magic words in her ear.

Magic words?--simple, commonplace words, spoken by myriads of men before
and since into myriads of willing ears, in every tongue this earth hath
ever known. But to Elsa it seemed as if the Magyar tongue had never
before sounded so exquisite! To her the words were magic because they
wrought a miracle in her. She had been a girl--a child ere those words
were spoken. She liked Andor, she liked her father and her mother,
little Emma over the way, Mari néni, who was always kind. She had loved
them all, been pleased when she saw them, glad to give them an
affectionate kiss.

But now, since that last csárdás had begun, a strange and mysterious
current had gone from Andor's arm right through her heart; something had
happened, which caused her cheeks to glow with a fire other than that
produced by the heat of the dance and made her own hands tremble when
they rested on Andor's shoulder. And there was that in his look which
made her eyes burn and fill with tears.

"You are beautiful, Elsa! I love you!"

She could not answer him, of course; how could she, when she felt that
her throat was choked with sobs? Yet she felt so happy, so happy that
never since the day of her first communion, when Pater Bonifácius had
blessed her and assured her that her soul was as white as that of an
angel--never since then had she known such perfect, such absolute
happiness. She could not speak, she almost thought once that she was
going to faint, so strange was the thrill of joy which went right
through her when Andor's lips rested for one brief, sweet moment upon
her shoulder.


And now the lights are burning low, the gipsies scrape their fiddles
with a kind of wild enthusiasm, which pervades them just as much as the
dancers. Round and round in a mad twirl now, the men hold the girls with
both hands by the waist, the girls put a hand on each of their partner's
shoulders; thus they spin round and round, petticoats flying, booted
feet stamping the ground.

The young faces are all hot and streaming, quick breaths come in short,
panting gasps from these young chests. The spectators join in the
excitement, the men stamp and clap their heels to the rhythm of the
dance, the women beat their hands one against the other to that same
wild, syncopated measure. Old men grasp middle-aged women round the
waist; smiling, self-deprecatingly they too begin to tread; Hej! 'Tis
not so long ago we were young too, and that wild Hungarian csárdás fires
the blood until it glows afresh.

Everyone moves, every body sways, it is impossible to keep quite still
while that intoxicating rhythm fills the air.

Only Klara the Jewess stands by, stolid and immovable; the Magyar blood
is not in her, hers is the languorous Oriental blood, the supple,
sinuous movements of the Levant. She watches this bacchanalian whirligig
with a sneer upon her thin, red lips. Beside her Erös Béla too is
still, the scowl has darkened on his face, his one eye leers across the
group of twirling dancers to that one couple close to the musicians'
platform.

In the noise that goes on around him he cannot, of course, hear the
words which Andor speaks, but he sees the movements of the young man's
lips, and the blush which deepens over Elsa's face. That one eye of his,
keener than any pair of eyes, has seen the furtive kiss, quick and
glowing, which grazed the girl's bare shoulder, and noted the quiver
which went right through the young, slender body and the look that shot
through the quickly-veiled blue eyes.

He was only a peasant, a rough son of the soil, whose temperament was
hot with passion and whose temper had never known a curb. He had never
realized until this moment how beautiful Elsa was, and how madly he
loved her. For he called the jealous rage within by the sacred name of
love, and love to a Magyar peasant is his whole existence, the pivot
round which he frames his life, his thoughts of the present, his dreams
of the future.

The soil and the woman!--they are his passions, his desires, his
religion--to own a bit of land--of Hungarian land--and the woman whom he
loves. Those two possessions will satisfy him--beyond these there is
nothing worth having--a plough, of course--a hut wherein to sleep--an ox
or two, perhaps--a cow--a horse.

But the soil and the woman on whom he has fixed his love--we'll call it
love . . . he certainly calls it so--those two possessions make the
Hungarian peasant more contented than any king or millionaire of Western
civilization.

Erös Béla had the land. His father left him a dozen kataszter (land
measure about two and three-quarter acres) or so; Elsa was the woman
whom he loved, and the only question was who--he or Andor--would be
strong enough to gain the object of his desire.



CHAPTER III

"You will wait for me?"


But now it is all over, the final bar of the csárdás has been played,
the last measure trodden. From the railway station far away the sharp
clang of a bell has announced the doleful fact that in half an hour the
train will start for Arad, thence to Brassó, where the recruits will be
enrolled, ticketed, docketed like so many heads of cattle--mostly
unwilling--made to do service for their country.

In half an hour the train starts, and there is so much still to say that
has been left unsaid, so many kisses to exchange, so many promises,
protestations, oaths.

The mothers, fearful and fussy, look for their sons in among the crowd
like hens in search of their chicks; their wizened faces are hard and
wrinkled like winter apples, they carry huge baskets on their arms,
over-filled with the last delicacies which their fond, toil-worn hands
will prepare for the beloved son for the next three years:--a piece of
smoked bacon, a loaf of rye bread, a cake of maize-flour.

The lads themselves--excited after the dance, and not quite as
clear-headed as they were before that last cask of Hungarian wine was
tapped in Ignácz Goldstein's cellar--feel the intoxication of the
departure now, the quick good-byes, the women's tears. A latent spirit
of adventure smothers their sorrow at leaving home.

The gipsies have struck up a melancholy Magyar folksong; the crowd
breaks up in isolated groups, mothers and fathers with their sons
whisper in the dark corners of the barn. The father who did his service
thirty years ago gives sundry good advice--no rebellion, quiet
obedience, no use complaining or grumbling, the three years are quickly
over. The mother begs her darling not to give way to drink, and not to
get entangled with one of the hussies in the towns; women and wine, the
two besetting temptations that assail the Magyar peasant--let the
darling boy resist both for his sorrowing mother's sake.

But the lad only listens with half an ear, his dark eyes roam around the
barn in search of the sweetheart; he wants one more protestation of love
from her lips, one final oath of fidelity.

Andor has neither father to admonish him, nor mother to pray over him;
the rich uncle Lakatos Pál, with whom he has lived hitherto, does not
care enough about him to hang weeping round his neck.

And Elsa has given her father and mother the slip, and joined Andor
outside the barn.

Her blue eyes--tired after fifteen hours of pleasure--blink in the glare
of the brilliant sun. Andor puts his arm round her waist and she,
closing her aching eyes, allows him to lead her away.

And now they are wandering down the great dusty high road, beneath the
sparse shade of the stunted acacias that border it. They feel neither
heat, nor dust, and say but little as they walk. From behind them,
muffled by louder sounds, come the sweet, sad strains of the Magyar
love-song, "Csak egy kis lány van a világon."

    "There is but one girl in all the world,
    And she is my own white dove.
    Oh! How great must God's love be for me!
    That He thought of giving you to me."

"Elsa, you will wait for me?" asked Andor, with deep, passionate anxiety
at last.

"I will wait for you, Andor," replied the girl simply, "if the good God
will give me the strength."

"The strength, Elsa, will be in yourself," he urged, "if only you love
me as I love you."

"Three years is such a long time!" she sighed.

"I will count the weeks that separate us, Elsa--the days--the hours----"

"I, too, will be counting them."

"When I come back I will at once talk with Pali bácsi--he is getting
tired of managing his property--I know that at times lately he has felt
that he needed a rest, and that he means to ask me to see to everything
for him. He will give me that nice little house on the Fekete Road, and
the mill to look after. We can get married at once, Elsa--when I come
back."

He talked on somewhat ramblingly, at times incoherently. It was easy to
see that he was trying to cheat sorrow, to appear cheerful and hopeful,
because he saw that Elsa was quite ready to give way to tears. It was so
hard to walk out of fairyland just when she had entered it, and found it
more beautiful than anything else in life. The paths looked so smooth
and so inviting, and fairy forms beckoned to her from afar; it all would
have been so easy, if only the good God had willed it so. She thought of
the many sins which--in her innocent life--she had committed, and for
which Pater Bonifácius had given her absolution; perhaps if she had been
better--been more affectionate with her mother, more forbearing with her
father, the good God would have allowed her to have this happiness in
full which now appeared so shadowy.

She fell to wishing that Andor had not been quite so fine and quite so
strong, that his chest had been narrower, or his eyesight less keen.
Womanlike, she felt that she would have loved him just as much and more,
if he were less vigorous, less powerful; and in that case the wicked
government would not want him; he could stay at home and help Pali bácsi
to look after his lands and his mills, and she could marry him before
the spring.

Then the pressure of his arm round her waist recalled her to herself;
she turned and met his glowing, compelling eyes, she felt that wonderful
vitality in him which made him what he was, strong in body and strong in
soul; his love was strong because his body was strong, as was his soul,
his spirit and his limbs, and she no longer wished him to be weak and
delicate, for then it would no longer be Andor--the Andor whom she
loved.

The clang of the distant bell chased away Elsa's last hovering dreams.
Andor did not hear it; he was pressing the girl closer and closer to
him, unmindful of his surroundings, unmindful that he was on the high
road, and that frequently ox-carts went by laden with people, and that
passers-by were hurrying now toward the railway station.

True that no one took any notice of this young man and maid; everyone
was either too much absorbed in the business of the morning, or too much
accustomed to these final scenes of farewell and tenderness ere the lads
went off for their three years' service, to throw more than a cursory
glance on these two.

"I love you, Elsa, my dove, my rose," Andor reiterated over and over
again; "you will wait for my return, will you not?"

"I will wait, Andor," replied the girl through her sobs.

"The thought of you will lighten my nights, and bring sunshine to my
dreary days. Every morning and every evening when I say my prayers, I
shall ask my guardian angel to fly over to yours, and to tell him to
whisper in your ear that I love you beyond all else on earth."

"We must part now, Andor," she said earnestly, "the second bell has gone
long ago."

"Not yet, Elsa, not yet," he pleaded; "just walk as far as that next
acacia tree. There no one will see us, and I want one more kiss before I
go."

She never thought to resist him, since her own heart was at one with his
wish, and he was going away so soon and for so long. So they walked as
far as the next acacia tree, and there he took her in his arms and
kissed her on the cheeks, the eyes, the lips.

"God alone knows, Elsa," he said, and now his own voice was choked with
sobs, "what it means to me to leave you. You are the one woman in the
world for me, and I will thank the good God on my knees every day of my
life for the priceless blessing of your love."

After that they walked back hand in hand. They had wandered far, and in
a quarter of an hour the train would be starting. It meant a week in
prison in Arad for any recruit to miss the train, and Andor did mean to
be brave and straight, and to avoid prison during the three years.

The gipsy musicians had carried their instruments over to the railway
station; here they had ensconced themselves in full view of the train
and were playing one after the other the favourite songs of those who
were going away.

When Andor and Elsa reached the station the crowd in and around it was
dense, noisy and full of animation and colour. A large batch of recruits
who had come by the same train from more distant villages had alighted
at Marosfalva and joined in the bustle and the singing. They had got
over the pang of departure from home half an hour or an hour ago; they
had already left the weeping mothers and sweethearts behind, so now they
set to with a will in true Hungarian fashion to drown regrets and stifle
unmanly tears by singing their favourite songs at the top of their rough
voices, and ogling those girls of Marosfalva who happened to be
unattached.

The captain in command, with his lieutenant, was pacing up and down the
station platform. He now gave a command to a couple of sergeants, and
the entraining began. Helter-skelter now, for it was no use losing a
good seat whilst indulging in a final kiss or tear. There was a general
stampede for the carriages and trucks; the recruits on ahead, behind
them the trail of women, the mothers with their dark handkerchiefs tied
round their heads, the girls with pale, tear-stained faces, their
petticoats of many colours swinging round their shapely hips as they
run, the fathers, the brothers.

Here comes Pater Bonifácius, who has finished saying his mass just in
time to see the last of his lads. He has tucked his soutane well up
under his sash, and he is running across the platform, his rubicund,
kindly face streaming with excitement.

"Pater! Pater! Here!"

A score of voices cry to him from different carriages, and he hurries
on, grasping each rough, hot hand as it is extended out to him.

"Bless you, my children," he cries, and the large, red cotton
handkerchief wanders surreptitiously from his nose to his eyes. "Bless
you and keep you."

"Be good lads," he admonishes earnestly, "remember your confession and
the holy sacraments! No drinking!"

"Oh, Pater!" comes in protesting accents all around him.

"Well! not more than is good for you. Abstinence on Fridays--a regular
confession and holy communion and holy mass on Sundays will help to keep
you straight before the good God."

There's the last bell! Clang! clang! In two minutes comes the horn, and
then we are off. The gipsies are playing the saddest of sad songs, it
seems as if one's heartstrings were being wrenched out of one's body.

"_There is but one girl in all the world!_"

For each lad only one girl!--and she is there at the foot of the
carriage-steps, a corner of her ribbon or handkerchief or cotton
petticoat stuffed into her mouth, to keep her from bursting into sobs.
The mothers now are dry-eyed and silent. They look with dull, unseeing
gaze on this railway train, the engine, the carriages, which will take
their lads away from them. Many have climbed up on the steps of the
carriages, hanging on to the handrails, so as to be near the lads as
long as possible. Their position is a perilous one, the sergeants as
well as the railway officials have to take hold of them by the waist and
to drag them forcibly down to the ground before they will give way.

It is the mothers who are the most obstinate. They cling to the
handrails, to the steps, even to the wheels--there will be a fearful
accident if they are not driven off by force. And they will yield only
to force; guards and porters take hold of them by the waist and drag
them away from their perilous positions.

They fight with stolid obstinacy; they will hang on to the train--they
are the mothers, you see!--and yet from where they are they cannot
always see their sons, herded in with forty or fifty other lads in a
truck, some standing, some squatting on the ground, or on the provision
baskets. But if you cannot see your son, it is always something to be on
the step of the train which is about to take him away.

The lads are all singing now at the top of their voices, but down below
on the platforms there is but little noise; the mothers do not speak,
because they are fighting for places on the steps of the
railway-carriages, where the boys are; they press their lips tightly
together, and when a guard or a porter comes to drag them away they just
hit out with their elbows--stolidly, silently.

The fathers and the other older men stand about in groups, leaning on
their sticks, talking in whispers, recounting former experiences of
entraining, or recruiting, of those abominable three years; and the
young girls--the sweethearts, the sisters, the friends--dare not speak
for fear they should break down and help to unman the lads.

Andor, by dint of fighting and obstinacy, has kept his place in the door
of one of the carriages; he sits on the floor, with his feet down on the
step below, and refuses to quit his position for anyone. Several lads
from the rear have tried to throw him out or to drag him in, but Andor
is mightily strong--you cannot move him if he be not so minded.

Elsa, sitting on the step lower down, is resting her elbow on his knee.
There is no thought of hiding their love for one another; let the whole
village know it, or the whole countryside, they do not care; they are
not going to deprive themselves of these last few minutes--these
heaven-born seconds, whilst their hands can still meet, their eyes can
speak the words which their lips no longer dare frame.

"I love you!"

"You will wait for me?"

In those few words lies all the consolation for the present, all the
hope of the future. With these words engraved upon heart and memory they
can afford to look more serenely upon these blank and dreary three
years.

It was as well to have spoken them; as well to have actually put into
words what they had already known in their hearts long ago. Now they can
afford to wait, and Andor will do it with confidence, he is a man and he
is free. He viewed the future as a master views his slave; the future is
his to do with what he likes, to mould, to shape in accordance with his
will.

The land which must one day be his, and Elsa his already! Andor almost
fell to wishing that the train would start quickly--so many seconds
would have been lived of those three intervening years.

Elsa tries to look as full of hope as he does; she is only a woman, and
the future is not hers to make at will. She is not the conqueror, the
lord and king of her own destiny; there are so many difficulties in the
path of her life which she would like to forget at this moment, so as
not to embitter the happiness which has come to her; there is her
shiftless mother and vagabond father, there is the pressure of poverty
and filial duty--it is easy for Andor--he is a man!

"You will wait for me, Elsa?" Andor asks for the twentieth time, and for
the twentieth time her lips murmur an assent, even though her heart is
heavy with foreboding.

There goes the horn!

"Elsa, my love, one more kiss," cries Andor, as he presses her closely,
ever more closely to his heart. "God bless you, my rose! You _will_ wait
for me?"

The engine gives a shrill whistle. All the men now--realizing the
danger--drag their women-folk away from the slowly-revolving wheels. The
gipsy musicians strike up the first spirited bars of the Rákóczy March,
as with much puffing and ponderous creakings and groanings the
heavily-laden train with its human freight steams away from the little
station.

"My son! my son!"

"Benkó! my son!"

"János!"

"Endre!"

A few heartrending cries as each revolution of the wheels takes the lads
a little further away from their homes.

"Elsa, you will wait for me?" comes as a final, appealing cry from
Andor.

He stands in the door of the carriage, which he holds wide open, and
through a mist of tears which he no longer tries to suppress he sees
Elsa standing there, quite still--a small image of beauty and of sorrow.
The sun glints upon her hair, it shines and sparkles like living gold;
her hands are clasped tightly together, and with her full, many-hued
petticoats round her slim waist and tiny red-shod feet she looks like a
flower.

The crowd below moves alongside of the train--for the first minute or so
they all keep up with it, close to the carriage at the door of which can
still be seen the head of son or brother or sweetheart. But now the
engine puts on more speed, the wheels revolve more quickly--some of the
crowd fall away, unable to run so fast.

Only the mothers try to keep up--the old women, some of them
bare-footed, stolid, looking straight before them--hardly looking at the
train, just running . . . alongside the train first of all, then they
must needs fall back--but still they run along the metals, even though
the train moves away so quickly now that soon even a mother could not
distinguish her son's head, like a black pin-point leaning out of the
carriage window.

So they run:--one or two women run thus for over a kilomètre, they run
long after the train has disappeared from view.

But Elsa stood quite still. She did not try to run after the train.

Through the noise of the puffing engine, the final cries of farewell,
through all the noise and the bustle, Andor's cry rose above all, his
final appeal to her to be true:

"Elsa! you will wait for me?"



CHAPTER IV

"Now that he is dead."


Stranger, if you should ever be driving on the main road between Szeged
and Arad, tell your driver to pull up at the village of Marosfalva; its
one broad street runs inland at right angles from the road; you will
then have on your right two or three bits of meadowland overshadowed by
willow trees, which slope down to the Maros; beyond the Maros lies the
great plain--the fields of maize and pumpkin, of hemp and sunflower. And
who knows what lies beyond the fields?

But on your left will be the village of Marosfalva with the wayside inn
and public bar, kept by Ignácz Goldstein, standing prominently at the
corner immediately facing you. Two pollarded acacias are planted near
the door of the inn, above the lintel of which a painted board scribbled
over with irregular lettering invites the traveller to enter. A wooden
verandah, with tumble-down roof and worm-eaten supporting beams, runs
along two sides of the house, and from the roof hang a number of
gaily-coloured and decorated earthenware pots and jars.

The open space in front of the inn and the whole of the length of the
one street of Marosfalva are very dusty and dry in the summer, in the
autumn and spring they are a sea and river of mud, and in the winter the
snow hides the deep, frozen crevasses; but place and street are as God
made them, and it is not man's place to interfere. To begin with, the
cattle and geese and pigs must all pass this way on their way to the
water, so of course it is impossible to do anything with the ground even
if one were so minded.

The inn is the only house in Marosfalva which boldly faces the street,
all the others seem to be looking at it over their shoulders, the front
of one house facing the back of its neighbour, with a bit of garden or
yard between, and so on, the whole kilomètre length of the street.

But each house has its wooden verandah, which shields the living rooms
against the glare of the sun in summer, and shelters them from snow and
rain in winter. These wooden verandahs are in a greater or lesser state
of repair and smartness, and under the roof of every verandah hang rows
of the same quaintly-decorated and picturesque earthenware jars.

Round every house, too, there are groups of gay sunflowers and of dull
green hemp, and the roofs, thatched with maize-stalks, are ornamented
along the top with wooden carvings which stand out clear and fantastic
against the intense blue of the sky.

Then, stranger, if you should alight at the top of the street and did
wander slowly down its dusty length, you will presently see it widen out
just in front of the church. It stands well there, doesn't it?--at one
end of this open place, with its flat, whitewashed façade and
tower--red-roofed and crowned with a metal cross that glints in the
sun--the whole building so like in shape to a large white hen, with head
erect and crimson comb and wings spread out flat to the ground.

The presbytery is close by--you cannot miss it. It is a one-storied
house, with a row of green-shuttered windows along the front and at the
side a low gate which leads to a small garden at the back, and over
which appears a vista of brilliant perennials and a stiff row of purple
asters.

There is the tiny school-house, too, which in the late summer is made
very gay in front with vividly coloured dahlias--an orgy of yellow and
brick-red, of magenta and orange.

If your driver has come along with you down the street, he will point
out to you the house of Barna Jenö--mayor of the Commune of
Marosfalva--a personage of vast consideration in the village--a
consideration which he shares with Hóhér Aladár, who is the village
justice of the peace, and with Erös Béla, who is my lord the Count's
bailiff.

Then lower down, beyond the church, is the big barn belonging to Ignácz
Goldstein, where on special occasions, as well as on fine Sunday
afternoons, the young folk meet for their simple-hearted, innocent
amusements--for their dancing, their singing and their courtships, and
further on still are the houses of the poorer peasants--of men like
Kapus Benkó who has never saved a fillér and until lately, when he was
stricken down with illness, had to work as a day labourer for wage,
instead of owning a bit of land of his own and planting it up for his
own enjoyment. Here the houses are much smaller and squalid-looking:
they have no verandahs--only a narrow door and tiny, diminutive windows
which are not made to open and shut. The pieces of ground around them
are also planted, like the others, with hemp and with sunflowers, but
even these look less majestic, less prosperous than those which surround
the houses higher up the streets; their brown heads are smaller, more
sparsely laden with the good oil-bearing seeds, and the stems of the
hemp do not look as if they ever would make a thatch.

The street itself is wide and a regular heat-trap in summer: in the
autumn and the spring it is ankle-deep in mud, and of course in the
winter it is buried in snow. But in the late summer it is at its best,
one or two heavy showers of rain have laid the dust, and the sunflowers
and dahlias round the little school-house and by the presbytery are very
gay--such a note of crude and vivid colour which even puts the decorated
jars to shame.

Also the sun has lost some of its unbearable heat; after four o'clock in
the afternoon it is pleasant to sit or stand outside one's house for a
bit of gossip with a neighbour. The brown-legged, black-eyed children,
coolly clad in loose white shifts, bare-footed and bare-headed, can play
outside now; the little girls, with bright-coloured kerchiefs tied round
their heads, and pink or blue petticoats round their waists, vie with
the dahlias in hue.

On Sunday afternoons it is cool enough to dance in Ignácz Goldstein's
barn. The black day in the calendar--the fourteenth of September--has
come and gone, and the lads have gone with it: except for the weeping
mothers and sweethearts the ordinary village life has resumed its
peaceful course. But then, there are every year a few weeping mothers
and sweethearts in Marosfalva or Kender or Görcz, just as there is
everywhere else: the lads have to go and do their military service as
soon as they come of age.

And then others come back about this time, those who have completed
their three years, and they must be made welcome with dancing and
music--the things which a Hungarian peasant loves best in all the world.

And as the days are still long and the evenings warm there are the
strolls hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm--after the dancing--up the village
street as far as the slowly-flowing Maros. One or two of the lads who
have come home after three years have found their sweethearts waiting
for them--but only one or two. Three years is a long, long time! Girls
cannot afford to wait for husbands while their youth and good looks fly
away so quickly. And the lads, too, are fickle; some of them have
apparently forgotten amongst the more showy, more lively beauties of
garrison towns, the doe-eyed girl to whom they had promised faith. They
are ready, as soon as they come back, for new courtships, fresh
love-making, another girl--with blue eyes this time, and fair hair
instead of brown.

Then, of course, there are those who never will come back. That awful,
mysterious place called Bosnia has swallowed them up. There was
fighting, it seems, in Bosnia, and many were killed: two lads from
Marosfalva, one from Fekete and two from Kender.

Bosnia must belong to the Crown of Hungary--whatever that may mean--the
politicians say so, anyhow, and in order that the Crown of Hungary
should have what rightly belongs to it the lads from our villages have
to fight and get killed.

"Is that just, I ask you?" so the mothers argue.

The sweethearts weep for awhile and then cast about for fresh fish out
of the waters of Life. Sometimes there are mistakes: lads who have been
reported killed turn up at the village on the appointed day, either hale
and hearty or maimed and crippled. In either case they are welcome. But
at times the mistake is the other way: no black report has come; the
mothers, the fathers, the sweethearts, expect the young soldier home--he
does not come. The others return on a given day--they arrive by
train--Laczi or Benkó or Pál is not amongst them. Where is he? Well!
they were not all in the same regiment; they have seen little or
nothing of one another during these three years.

The anxious mothers rush to Barna Jenö--the mayor--and he drafts a
letter of inquiry which is duly sent off to the proper authorities at
Budapest. In the course of time--not very promptly--the reply comes. A
letter of condolence, curtly worded: the name of Laczi or Benkó or Pál,
as the case may be, was inadvertently omitted from the list of killed
after the skirmish near Banialuka.

Sometimes also the young soldier having received his discharge, does not
care to return to his native village: he has lost his taste for pigs and
geese, for digging and sowing; he has had a glimpse of life and wants to
see some more; the emigration agents at Budapest are active and
persuasive. "America is a land of gold," they say; "no further trouble
but to stoop and pick up the gold just where it lies."

And the lad listens and ponders. He will not go home, for he is afraid
that his mother's tears will deter him from his purpose: he follows the
advice of the emigration agent, expends his last fillér, sells his spare
shirt and takes passage at Fiume on a big ship which conveys him to the
land of riches.

Oh! Those lads who go away like that come back sure enough! Broken in
health and spirits, dying of that relentless and mysterious disease
called "homesickness," they drift back after a few years to their
villages, having amassed a little money perhaps, but having lost that
vitality, that love of life and of enjoyment which is the characteristic
of these sons of Hungary--the land of warmth and of sunshine, of
generous wines and luscious corn.

And Erös Béla, walking arm-in-arm with Kapus Elsa on that warm Sunday
afternoon, had talked much of Andor and of his untoward fate.

The two young people had met outside the church after Benediction, they
had strolled down as far as the Maros and back again into the village.

The warm late September sunshine shed a golden glow upon the thatched
roofs of the cottages and made every bright-coloured pot that hung under
the verandahs gleam with many-hued and dazzling reflections. It touched
the red roof of the little church with an additional coat of glittering
crimson and caused the metal cross upon the spire to throw out vivid
sparks of light.

The festive air of a Sunday afternoon hung upon the village street, men
and maids walked by arm-in-arm, the girls in their finery with cotton
petticoats swinging out, and high-heeled boots clinking as they walked,
the men with round felt hats tilted rakishly over one eye, their bronzed
faces suffused in smiles, the song never for long absent from their
lips.

From the top of the street a flock of geese in charge of a diminutive
maiden of ten was slowly waddling down toward the stream, shaking their
grey and white feathers under the hot kiss of the sun, and behind them,
in slow majesty, a herd of cows and oxen--snow-white, with graceful,
tall horns, lyre-shaped and slender--ambled lazily along.

Elsa and Béla had paused outside the house of Hóhér Aladár--who was the
village justice of the peace and husband to Ilona, Béla's only sister.

A mightily rich man was Hóhér Aladár, and Ilona was noted for being the
most thrifty housewife in a country where most housewives are thrifty,
and for being a model cook in a land where good cooks abound.

Her house was a pattern of orderliness and cleanliness: always
immaculately whitewashed outside and the little shutters painted a vivid
green, it literally shone with dazzling brightness on these hot summer
afternoons. The woodwork of the verandah was elaborately carved, the
pots that hung from the roof had not a chip or crack in them.

No wonder that Erös Béla was proud of these housewifely qualities in his
only sister, and that he loved to make a display of them before his
fiancée whose own mother was so sadly lacking in them.

Now he pushed open the front door and stood aside to allow Elsa to
enter, and as she did so the sweet scent of rosemary and lavender
greeted her nostrils; she looked round her with unfeigned appreciation,
and a little sigh--hardly of envy but wholly wistful--escaped her lips.
The room was small and raftered and low, but little light came through
the two small windows, built one on each side of the front door, but
even in the dim light the furniture shone with polish, and the wooden
floor bore every sign of persistent and vigorous scrubbing. There was a
cloth of coloured linen upon the centre table, beautifully woven in a
chess-board pattern of red and blue by Ilona's deft hands. The pewter
and copper cooking utensils on and about the huge earthenware stove were
resplendently bright, and the carved oak dower-chest--with open
lid--displayed a dazzling wealth of snow-white linen--hand-woven and
hand-embroidered--towels, sheets, pillow-cases, all lying in beautiful
bundles, neatly tied with red ribbons and bows.

Again Elsa sighed--in that quaint, wistful little way of hers. If her
mother had been as thrifty and as orderly as Ilona, then mayhap her own
marriage with Erös Béla need never have come about. She could have
mourned for Andor quietly by herself, and the necessity of a wealthy
son-in-law would probably never have presented itself before her
mother's mind.

But now she followed Ilona into the best bedroom, the sanctum sanctorum
of every Hungarian peasant home--the room that bears most distinctly the
impress of the housewifely character that presides over it. And as Elsa
stood upon the threshold of her future sister-in-law's precious domain,
she forgot her momentary sadness in the hope of a brighter future, when
she, too, would make her new home orderly and sweet-scented, with
beautifully-polished furniture and floors radiant with cleanliness. The
thought of what her own best bedroom would be like delighted her fancy.
It was a lovely room, for Béla's house was larger by far than his
sister's, the rooms were wider and more lofty, and the windows had
large, clear panes of glass in them. She would have two beautiful
bedsteads in the room, and the bedspreads would be piled up to the
ceiling with down pillows and duvets covered in scarlet twill; she would
have two beautiful spreads of crochet-work, a washstand with marble top,
and white crockery, and there would be a stencilling of rose garlands on
the colour-washed walls.

So now her habitual little sigh was not quite so wistful as it had been
before; the future need not after all be quite so black as she sometimes
feared, and surely the good God would be kind to her in her married
life, seeing that she obeyed His commandment and honoured her mother by
doing what her mother wished.

Ilona in the best bedroom was busy as usual with duster and brush. She
did not altogether approve of Béla's choice of a wife, and her greetings
of Elsa were always of a luke-warm character, and were usually
accompanied by lengthy lectures on housewifery and the general
management of a kitchen.

Elsa always listened deferentially to these lectures, with eyes downcast
and an attitude of meekness; but in her own heart she was thankful that
her future home would lie some distance out of the village and that
Ilona would probably have but little time to walk out there very often.

In the meanwhile, however, she hated these Sunday afternoon visits, with
their attendant homilies from Ilona first, then from Aladár--who was
self-important and dictatorial, and finally from Béla, who was
invariably disagreeable and sarcastic whenever he saw his sister and his
fiancée together.

Fortunately, to-day Béla had said that she need not stay more than a few
minutes.

"We'll just pay our respects to Ilona and Aladár," he had said
pompously, "and take another walk before the sun goes down."

And Elsa--taking him at his word--had made but a meteoric appearance in
her future sister-in-law's cottage--a hasty greeting, a brief peck on
Ilona's two cheeks, and one on Aladár's bristly face, then the
inevitable homily; and as soon as Ilona paused in the latter, in order
to draw breath, Elsa gave her another peck, by way of farewell,
explained hastily that her mother was waiting for her, and fled
incontinently from the rigid atmosphere of the best bedroom.

Béla and his brother-in-law had started on politics, and it took a
little time before Elsa succeeded in persuading him to have that nice
walk with her before the sun went down. But now they were out again in
the sunshine at last, and Elsa was once more able to breathe freely and
with an infinity of relief.

"I wonder," said Béla dryly, "if you are really taking in all the good
advice which Ilona so kindly gives you from time to time. You can't do
better than model yourself on her. She is a pattern wife and makes
Aladár perfectly happy. I wonder," he reiterated, with something of a
sneer, "if you will learn from her, or if your mother's influence will
remain with you for ever?"

Then, as with her accustomed gentleness she chose to remain silent,
rather than resent his sneer, he added curtly:

"If you want to make me happy and comfortable you will follow Ilona's
advice in all things."

"I will do my best, Béla," she said quietly.

Then for some reason which the young man himself could not perhaps have
explained he once more started talking about Andor.

"It was very hard on him," he said, with a shrug of his wide shoulders,
"to die just when he was on the point of getting his discharge."

And after an almost imperceptible moment of hesitation he added with
studied indifference: "Of course, all that talk of his being still alive
is sheer nonsense. I have done everything that lay in my power to find
out if there was the slightest foundation for the rumour, but now
I--like all sensible people--am satisfied that Andor is really dead."

Elsa was walking beside him, her hand resting lightly on his arm, as was
fitting for a girl who was tokened and would be a bride within the week:
she walked with head bent, her eyes fixed upon the ground. She made no
immediate reply to her fiance's self-satisfied peroration, and her
silence appeared to annoy him, for he continued with some acerbity:

"Don't you care to hear what I did on Andor's behalf?"

"Indeed I do, Béla," she said gently, "it was good of you to worry about
him--and you so busy already."

"I did what I could," he rejoined mollified. "Old Lakatos Pál has
hankered after him so, though he cared little enough about Andor at one
time. Andor was his only brother's only child, and I suppose Pali
bácsi[3] was suddenly struck with the idea that he really had no one to
leave his hoardings to. He was always a fool and a lout. If Andor had
lived it would have been all right. I think Pali bácsi was quite ready
to do something really handsome for him. Now that Andor is dead he has
no one; and when he dies his money all goes to the government. It is a
pity," he added, with a shrug of the shoulders. "If a peasant of
Marosfalva had it it would do good to the commune."

[Footnote 3: See footnote on p. 22.]

"I am sure if Andor had lived to enjoy it he would have spent it freely
and done good with it to everyone around," she said quietly.

"He would have spent it freely, right enough," he retorted dryly, "but
whether he would have done good to everyone around with it--I doubt me
. . . to Ignácz Goldstein, perhaps . . ."

"Béla, you must not say that," she broke in firmly; "you know that Andor
never was a drunkard."

"I never suggested that he was," retorted Béla, whose square, hard face
had become a shade paler than before, "so there is no reason for my
future wife to champion him quite so hotly as you always do."

"I only spoke the truth."

"If someone else spoke of me a hundred times more disparagingly than I
ever do of Andor would you defend me as warmly, I wonder, as you do
him?"

"Don't let us quarrel about Andor," she rejoined gently, "it does not
seem right now that he is dead."



CHAPTER V

"Love will follow."


They had reached the small cottage where old Kapus and his wife and Elsa
lived. It stood at the furthest end of the village, away from the main
road, and the cool meadows beside the Maros, away from the church and
the barn and all the brightest spots of Marosfalva. Built of laths and
mud, it had long ago quarrelled with the whitewash which had originally
covered it, and had forcibly ejected it, showing deep gaps and fissures
in its walls; the pots and jars which hung from the overhanging thatch
were all discoloured and broken, and the hemp which hung in bundles
beside them looked uneven and dark in colour, obviously beaten with a
slipshod, careless hand.

Such a contrast to the house of Hóhér Aladár--the rich justice of the
peace and of Ilona his wife! Elsa knew and expected that the usual
homily on the subject would not fail to be forthcoming as it did on
every Sunday afternoon; she only wondered what particular form it would
take to-day, whether Béla would sneer at her and her mother for the
tumble-down look of the verandah, for the bad state of the hemp, or the
coating of dirt upon the earthenware pots.

But it was the hemp to-day.

"Why don't you look after it, Elsa?" said Béla roughly, as he pointed to
the tangled mass of stuff above him, "your mother ruins even the sparse
crop which she has."

"I can't do everything," said Elsa, in that same gentle, even voice
which held in its tones all the gamut of hopeless discouragement; "since
father has been stricken he wants constant attention. Mother won't give
it him, so I have to be at his beck and call. Then there is the washing
. . ."

"I know, I know," broke in Béla with a sneer, "you need not always
remind me that my future wife--the bride of my lord the Count's own
bailiff--does menial work for a village schoolmistress and a snuffy old
priest!"

Elsa made no reply. She pushed open the door of the cottage and went in;
Béla followed her, muttering between his teeth.

The interior of Kapus Benkó's home was as squalid, as forlorn looking as
its approach; everywhere the hand of the thriftless housewife was
painfully apparent, in the blackened crockery upon the hearth, in the
dull, grimy look of the furniture--once so highly polished--in the
tattered table-cloth, the stains upon the floor and the walls, but above
all was it apparent in the dower-chest--that inalienable pride of every
thrifty Hungarian housewife--the dower-chest, which in Ilona's cottage
was such a marvel of polish outside, and so glittering in its rich
contents of exquisite linen. But here it bore relentless if mute
testimony to the shiftless, untidy, disorderly ways of the Kapus
household. For instead of the neat piles of snow-white linen it was
filled with rubbish--with husks of maize and mouldy cabbage-stalks,
thrown in higgledy-piggledy with bundles of clothes and rags of every
sort and kind.

It stood close to the stove, the smoke of which had long ago covered the
wood with soot. The lid was thrown open and hung crooked upon a broken
hinge.

When Elsa entered the cottage with Erös Béla her mother was busy with
some cooking near the hearth, and smoke and the odour of _gulyás_ (meat
stew) filled the place. Close to the fire in an armchair of polished
wood sat old Kapus Benkó, now a hopeless cripple. The fate which lies in
wait in these hot countries for the dissolute and the drunkard had
already overtaken him. He had had a stroke a couple of years ago, and
then another last summer. Now he could not move hand or foot, his tongue
refused him service, he could only see and hear and eat. Otherwise he
was like a log: carried from his palliasse on which he slept at night to
the armchair in which he sat all day. Elsa's strong young arms carried
him thus backwards and forwards, she ministered to him, nursed him, did
what cheering she could to brighten his days that were an almost
perpetual night.

At sight of Elsa his wrinkled face, which was so like that of a corpse,
brightened visibly. She ran to him and said something in his ear which
caused his dulled eyes to gleam with momentary pleasure.

"What did you bring Béla home with you for?" said the mother
ungraciously, speaking to her daughter and rudely ignoring the young
man, who had thrown his hat down and drawn one of the chairs close to
the table. At Kapus Irma's inhospitable words he merely laughed and
shrugged his shoulders.

"Well, Irma néni!" he said, "this is the last Sunday, anyhow, that you
will be troubled with my presence. After Wednesday, as I shall have Elsa
in my own home, I shall not need to come and visit here."

"No!" retorted Irma, with a snap of her lean jaws, "you will take good
care to alienate her from her duty to her father and to her mother,
won't you?"

Then, in answer to a further sneer from him, she added, more viciously:
"You will teach her to be purse-proud like yourself--vain, and
disdainful of her old home."

Béla's one eye--under the distorted brow--wandered with a sullen
expression of contempt over every individual piece of furniture in the
room.

"It's not a home to be proud of, anyway," he said dryly; "is it, Irma
néni?"

"You chose your future wife out of it," retorted Irma; "and 'tis from
here that you will have to fetch her on Wednesday, my friend."

She was always ready to quarrel with Béla, whose sneering ways she
resented, all the more that she knew they were well-deserved. But her
last words had apparently poured oil over the already troubled waters of
the young man's wrath, for now his sullen expression vanished, and a
light of satisfaction and of pride lit up his ungainly face:

"And I will fetch my future wife in a style befitting her new position,
you may be sure of that," he said, and brought his clenched fist down
upon the table with a crash, so that pots and pans rattled upon the
hearth and started the paralytic from his torpor.

Then he threw his head back and began to talk still more arrogantly and
defiantly than he had done hitherto.

"Forty-eight oxen," he said, "shall fetch her in six carts! Aye! even
though she has not one stick of furniture wherewith to endow her future
husband. Forty-eight oxen, I tell you, Irma néni! Never has there been
such a procession seen in Marosfalva! But Erös Béla is the richest man
in the Commune," he added, with an aggressive laugh, "and don't you
forget it."

But the allusion to Elsa's poverty and his own riches had exasperated
the old woman.

"With all your riches," she retorted, in her turn, with a sneer, "you
had to court Elsa for many years before she accepted you."

"And probably she would not have accepted me at all if you had not
bullied and worried her, and ordered her to say 'Yes' to me," he
rejoined dryly.

"Children must obey their parents," she said, "it is the law of God."

"A law which you, for one, apply to your own advantage, eh, Irma néni?"

"Have you any cause for complaint?"

"Oh, no! Elsa's obedience has served me well. And though I dare say," he
added, suddenly casting a sullen look upon the young girl, "she has not
much love for me now, she will do her duty by me as my wife, and love
will follow in the natural course of things."

Elsa had taken no part in this wordy warfare between her mother and her
future husband. It seemed almost as if she had not heard a word of it.
No doubt her ears were trained by now no longer to heed these squabbles.
She had drawn a low stool close to the invalid's chair, and sitting near
him with her hand resting on his knee, she was whispering and talking
animatedly to him, telling him all the gossip of the village, recounting
to him every small event of the afternoon and of the morning: Pater
Bonifácius' sermon, the behaviour of the choir boys, Patkós Emma's new
kerchief; when the stock of gossip gave out she began to sing to him, in
a low, sweet voice, one of those innumerable folk-songs so dear to every
Hungarian peasant's heart.

Irma intercepted the look which Béla cast upon his fiancée. She, too,
turned and looked at her daughter, and seeing her there, sitting at the
feet of that miserable wreck of humanity whom she called "father!"
ministering to him, for all the world like the angels around the dying
saints, a swift look of pity softened for a moment the mother's hard and
pinched face.

"You cannot expect the girl to have much love for you now," she said,
once more turning a vicious glance upon her future son-in-law; "your
mode of courtship was not very tender, you will admit."

"I don't believe in all that silly love-making," he rejoined roughly,
"it is good enough for the loutish peasants of the _alföld_ (lowlands);
they are sentimental and stupid: an educated man does not make use of a
lot of twaddle when he woos the woman of his choice."

"All men act very much in the same way when they are in love," said Irma
sententiously. "But I don't believe that you are really in love with
Elsa."

He shrugged his shoulders, and laughed, a short, sarcastic, almost cruel
laugh.

"Perhaps not," he said. "But I want her for my wife all the same."

"Only because she is the noted beauty of the countryside, and because
half the village wanted her."

"Precisely," he said with a sneer; "there was a good deal of bidding for
Elsa, eh, Irma néni? So you elected to give her to the highest bidder."

"You had been courting her longer than anybody," rejoined Irma, who this
time chose to ignore his taunt.

"And I would have won her sooner--on my own--even without your help, if
it had not been for that accursed Andor."

"Well! he is dead now, anyway. All doubts, I suppose, are at rest on
that point."

"There are a few fools still left in the village who maintain that he
will turn up some day."

"We all hope he will, because of Lakatos Pál. The poor man is fretting
himself into his grave, since he has realized that when he dies his
money and land must all go to the Government."

"He can sell his land and distribute his money while he lives," retorted
Béla; "but you won't catch him doing that--the old miser."

"Can't anything more be done?--about Andor, I mean."

"Of course not," he said impatiently; "everything that could be done has
been done. It's no use going on having rows by post with the War Office
about the proofs of a man's death who has been food for worms these past
two years."

"Well! you know, Béla, people here are not satisfied about those proofs.
I, for one, never held with those who would not believe in Andor's
death; there are plenty of folk in the village--and Pater Bonifácius is
one of them--who swear that he will come home one of these days--perhaps
when Pali bácsi is dead. And then he would find himself the richest man
in the Commune," she added, not without a point of malice, "richer even
than you, my good Béla."

"Hold your tongue, you old fool!" broke in Béla savagely, as once more
the sinister leer which hovered round his sightless eye was turned
toward Elsa.

"Didn't I say that I, for one, never believed that rubbish?" retorted
Irma sullenly; "and haven't I preached to her about it these past two
years? But you needn't be afraid," she added, as she turned once more to
her stewing-pot, "she didn't hear what I said. When she talks or sings
to her father you might shoot off a cannon--she wouldn't hear it. You
may say what you like just now, Béla, she'll not listen."

"Oho!" said Béla, even as a curious expression of obstinacy, not unmixed
with cruelty, crept into his colourless face, "you seem to forget, Irma
néni, that the rest of Elsa's life will have to be spent in listening to
me. We'll soon see about that."

"Elsa!" he called peremptorily.

Then, as indeed the girl appeared not to hear, but went on softly
crooning and singing to the helpless invalid like a mother to its babe,
the young man worked himself up into a passion of fury. The veins in his
pale forehead and temples swelled up visibly, the glitter in his one eye
became more cruel and more menacing, finally he brought his clenched
fist once more crashing down upon the table, even while he rose to his
feet, as if to give fuller meaning to his future marital authority.

"Elsa!" he shouted once more, hoarsely. "Elsa, do you hear what I say?"



CHAPTER VI

"I don't wish to marry; not yet."


The girl thus roughly apostrophized turned slowly round. She seemed
neither hurt nor even surprised at the young man's exhibition of temper.
In her blue eyes there was a strange look--one which had lately been
habitual to her, but which neither her mother nor Béla were able to
interpret: it was a look which conveyed the thought of resignation or
indifference or both, but also one which was peculiarly lifeless, as of
a soul who had touched the cold hand of despair.

Far be it from me to seek complexity in so simple a soul as was that of
this young Hungarian peasant girl. Elsa Kapus had no thought of
self-analysis; complicated sex and soul problems did not exist for her;
she would never have dreamed of searching the deep-down emotions of her
heart and of dragging them out for her mind to scrutinize. The morbid
modern craze for intricate and composite emotions was not likely to
reach an out-of-the-way Hungarian village that slept peacefully on the
banks of the sluggish Maros, cradled in the immensity of the plain.

Elsa had loved Lakatos Andor--the handsome, ardent young lover whose
impetuous courtship of her five years ago had carried her on the wings
of Icarus to a region so full of brightness and of sunlight that it was
no wonder that the wings--which had appeared god-like--turned out to be
ephemeral and brittle after all, and that she was soon precipitated
back and down into the ordinary sea of everyday life.

Elsa had never heard of Icarus, but she had felt herself soaring upwards
on heavenly wings when Andor--his lips touching her neck--had whispered
with passionate ardour: "Elsa, I love you!"

She had never heard of Icarus' fall, but she had experienced her own
from the giddy heights of heavenly happiness, down to the depths of
dull, aching despair. The fall had been very gradual--there had been
nothing grand or heroic or soul-stirring about it: Andor had gone away,
having told her that he loved her, and adjured her to wait for him. She
had waited for three years, patiently, quietly, obstinately, despite the
many and varied sieges laid to her heart and her imagination by the
inflammable, eligible youth of the countryside. Elsa Kapus--the
far-famed beauty of half the county, counted her suitors by the score.
Patiently, quietly, obstinately she kept every suitor at bay--even
though many were rich and some in high positions--even though her
mother, with the same patience, the same quietude, and the same
obstinacy worked hard to break her daughter's will.

But Andor was coming back. Andor had adjured her to wait for him: and
Elsa was still young--just sixteen when Andor went away. She was in no
hurry to get married.

No one, of course, guessed the reason of her obstinate refusal of all
the best matrimonial prizes in the county. No one guessed her
secret--the depth of her love for Andor--her promise to wait for
him--her mother guessed it least of all. Everyone put her stubbornness
down to conceit and to ambition, and no one thought any the worse of her
on that account. When she refused young Barna--the mayor's eldest son,
and Nagy Lajos, the rich pig merchant from Somsó, people shrugged their
shoulders and said that mayhap Elsa wanted to marry a shopkeeper of Arad
or even a young noble lord. Irma néni said nothing for the first year,
and even for two. She saw Nagy Lajos go away, and young Barna court
another girl. That was perhaps as it should be. Elsa was growing more
beautiful every year--and there was a noble lord who owned a fine estate
and a castle close by, who had taken lately to riding over on Sunday
afternoons to Marosfalva, and paid marked attention to Elsa.

Noble lords had been known to marry peasant girls--at least in books, so
Irma néni had been told, and, of course, one never knows! God's ways
were wonderful sometimes.

But when two years had gone by, when a rich shopkeeper from Arad had
come and courted and been refused, and when the noble lord had suddenly
ceased his Sunday afternoon visits to Marosfalva, Irma became more
anxious. She had a long and serious talk with her daughter, which led to
no good.

To all her mother's wise counsels and sound arguments Elsa had opposed
the simple statement of facts:

"I do not wish to marry, mother dear; not just yet."

This, of course, would never do. Irma realized that she had allowed her
ambition for her daughter to run away with her common-sense. Elsa must
have got some queer notion or other in her head; that intimacy with the
schoolmistress--who came from Budapest and talked a vast amount of
sentimental stuff which she had imbibed out of books--must be stopped at
once, and Elsa be taken in hand by her own mother.

To aim high was quite one thing, but to let every chance, however
splendid, slip through one's fingers was the work of a fool.

The work of taking Elsa in hand was thus promptly undertaken. Fate
favoured the mother's intentions: old Kapus was stricken with paralysis,
and Elsa had, from that hour forth, to spend most of her time with her
father in the house, and immediately under her mother's eye.

Though young Barna was married by now, and the pig merchant, the noble
lord and the rich shopkeeper all gone to seek a sweetheart elsewhere,
there were still plenty of suitors dangling round the beauty of the
country-side: in fact her well-known pride and aloofness had brought a
surfeit of competitors in the lists. Foremost among these was Erös Béla,
who was not only young and in a high position as my lord the Count's
chief bailiff, but was also reputed to be the richest man for miles
around.

Erös Béla had long ago made public his determination to win Elsa for
wife, and he had carried his courtship unostentatiously but persistently
all along, despite the many rivals in the field. Elsa never disliked
him, she accepted his attentions just as she did those of everyone else.
Periodically Béla would make a formal proposal of marriage, which Irma
néni, in her own name and that of Elsa's paralytic father, invariably
accepted. But to his sober and well-worded proposals Elsa gave the same
replies that she gave to her more impetuous adorers.

"I don't want to marry. Not yet!"

When the work of taking Elsa in hand began in earnest, Irma used Erös
Béla as her chief weapon of attack. He was very rich, young enough to
marry, my lord the Count looked upon him as his right hand--moreover
Béla had made Irma néni a solemn promise that if Elsa became his wife,
his father and mother-in-law should receive that fine house in the
Kender Road to live in, with a nice piece of garden, three cows and five
pigs, and a little maid-of-all-work to wait upon them.

Backed with such a bargain, Béla's suit was bound to prosper.

And yet, for another whole year, Elsa was obstinate. Irma had to resort
to sterner measures, and in a country like Hungary, where much of the
patriarchal feeling toward parents still exists, a mother's stern
measures become very drastic indeed. A child is a child while she is
under her parents' roof. If she be forty she still owes implicit
obedience, unbounded respect to them. If she fail in these, she becomes
an unnatural creature, denounced to her friends as such, under a cloud
of opprobrium before her tiny, circumscribed world.

Kapus Irma brought out the whole armoury of her parental authority, her
parental power: and her methods could be severe when she chose. I will
not say that she ill-treated the girl, though it was more than once that
Elsa's right cheek and ear were crimson when the left were quite pale,
and that often, on the hot Sundays in July and August, when the girls go
in low-necked corslets and shifts to church, Elsa wrapped a kerchief
over her shoulders--the neighbours said in order to hide the corrections
dealt by Irma néni's vigorous hand. But it was morally that her mother's
authority weighed most heavily upon the girl. Her commands became more
defined, and presently more peremptory. Elsa was soon placed in the
terrible alternative of either being faithless to Andor or disobedient
to her mother.

And it is characteristic of that part of the world that of the two sins
thus in prospect, the latter seemed by far the more heinous.

Yet Andor was due back at the end of the summer. The fourteenth of
September came and went and the new recruits went with it--another week,
and those who had completed their three years would be coming home.
Andor would, of course, be among them. There had come no adverse report
about him, and no news during those three years is always counted to be
good news. No letters or sign of life had come from him, but, then, many
of the lads never wrote home while they did their three years, and Andor
had no one to write to. He would not be allowed to write to Elsa, or,
rather, Elsa would never be allowed to receive letters from him, and his
uncle Lakatos Pál, the old miser, would only be furious with him for
spending his few fillérs on note-paper and stamps. But Elsa had waited
patiently during three years, knowing that though she had no news of
him, he would not forget her. She never mistrusted him, she never
doubted him.

She waited for him, and he did not return. At first, his non-appearance
excited neither surprise nor comment in the village. Andor had no
relations except his uncle Lakatos Pál, who did not care one brass
fillér about him: there had been no one to count the years, the months,
the days when he would return: there was only Elsa who cared, and she
dared not say anything at first, for fear of making her mother angry.

But at the turn of the year Lakatos Pál became ill, and when he got
worse and worse and the doctor seemed unable to do anything to make him
well, he began to talk of his nephew, Andor.

That is to say, he bewailed the fact that his only brother's only child
was dead, and that he--a poor sick man--had no one to look after him.

He first spoke of this to Pater Bonifácius, who was greatly shocked and
upset to hear such casual news of Andor's death, and it was only bit by
bit that he succeeded in dragging fuller particulars out of the sick
man. It seems that when the lad's regiment was out in Bosnia there was
an outbreak of cholera among the troops. Andor was one of those who
succumbed. It had all occurred less than a month before his discharge
was actually due, in fact these discharges had already been distributed
to those who were sick, in the hope that the lads would elect to go home
as soon as they could be moved, and thus relieve the Government of the
burden and expense of their convalescence.

But Lakatos Andor had died in the hospital of Slovnitza. An official
letter announcing his demise was sent to Lakatos Pál, his uncle and sole
relative, but Lakatos only threw the letter into a drawer and said
nothing about it to anybody.

It was nobody's business, he said. The Government would see to the lad's
burial, no doubt, but some busy-bodies at Marosfalva might think that it
was his--Lakatos'--duty to put up a stone or something to the memory of
his nephew: and that sort of nonsense was very expensive.

So no one in Marosfalva knew that Andor had died of cholera in the
hospital of Slovnitza until Lakatos Pál became sick, and in his
loneliness spoke of the matter to Pater Bonifácius.

Then there was universal mourning in the village. Andor had always been
very popular: good-looking, as merry as a skylark and a splendid dancer,
he was always the life and soul of every entertainment. Girls who had
flirted with him wept bitter tears, the mothers who thought how rich
Andor would have been now that old Lakatos was sure to die very
soon--sighed deep sighs of regret.

Many there were who never believed that Andor was dead. He was not the
lad to die of cholera: he might break his neck one day--riding or
driving--for he was always daring and reckless--but to lie sick of
cholera and to die in a hospital?--no, no, that did not seem like Andor.

Presently it became known that the official letter--announcing the
death--had not been quite in order; it was only a rumour--but the rumour
quickly gained credence, it fitted in with popular sentiment. Pater
Bonifácius himself, who had seen the letter, declared that the wording
of it was very curt and vague--much more curt and vague than such
letters usually were. It seems that there were a great many cases of
cholera in the isolation hospital at Slovnitza and lists were sent up
daily from there to Budapest of new cases, of severe cases, of
discharges and of deaths. In one of these lists Andor's name certainly
did appear among the dead, and a brief note to that effect had been
officially sent to Lakatos. But surely the news should have had
confirmation!

Where was the lad buried?

Who was beside him when he died?

Where were the few trinkets which he possessed; his mother's
wedding-ring which he always wore on his little finger?

Pater Bonifácius wrote to the War Office at Budapest asking for a reply
to these three questions. He received none. Then he persuaded Barna
Jenö--the mayor--to write an official document. The War Office up at
Budapest sent an equally official document saying that they had no
knowledge on those three points: Lakatos Andor was one of those whose
names appeared on the list of deaths from cholera at Slovnitza, and that
was quite sufficient proof to offer to any reasonable human being.

Pater Bonifácius sighed in bitter disappointment, Lakatos Pál continued
to bemoan his loneliness until he succeeded in persuading himself that
he had always loved Andor as his own son, and that the lad's supposed
death would presently cause his own.

And the neighbours--especially the women--held on to the belief that
Andor was not dead; they declared that he would return one day to enjoy
the good-will of his rich uncle now, to marry a girl of Marosfalva, and
to look forward to a goodly legacy from Pali bácsi by and by.



CHAPTER VII

"They are Jews and we are Hungarians."


But what of Elsa during this time? What of the sorrow, the alternating
hope and despair of those weary, weary months? She did not say much, she
hardly ever cried, but even her mother--hard and unemotional as she
was--respected the girl's secret for awhile, after the news was brought
into the cottage that Andor was really dead.

Erös Béla had brought the news, and Elsa, on hearing it thus blurted out
in Béla's rough, cruel fashion, had turned deathly pale, ere she
contrived to run out of the room and hide herself away in a corner,
where she had cried till she had made herself sick and faint.

"Have you been blind all these years, Irma néni?" Erös Béla had said
with his habitual sneer, when Irma threw up her bony hands in hopeless
puzzlement at her daughter's behaviour. "Did you not know that Elsa has
been in love with Andor all along?"

"No," said Irma in her quiet, matter-of-fact tone, "I did not know it.
Did you?"

"Of course I did," he replied dryly; "but I have also known for the past
six months that Andor was dead."

"You knew it?" exclaimed Irma with obvious incredulity.

"I have told you so, haven't I?" he retorted, "and I am not in the habit
of lying."

"But how did you come to know it?"

"When he did not return last September I marvelled what had happened; I
wonder no one else did. Then, when Lakatos Pál first became ill--long
even before he confided in Pater Bonifácius--I made inquiries at the War
Office and found out the truth."

"Whatever made you do that?" asked Irma, with a shrug of the shoulders.
"Andor wasn't anything to you."

"Perhaps not," replied Béla curtly; "but, you see, I was afraid that
Pali bácsi would die and that Andor would come back and find himself a
rich man. I should have lost Elsa then, so I was in a hurry to know."

Irma once more shrugged her shoulders in her habitual careless,
shiftless way--shelving, as it were, the whole responsibility of her
life, her fate, and her daughter upon some other power than her own
will. She cared nothing about these intrigues of Béla's or of anyone
else; she only wanted Elsa to make a rich marriage, so that she--the
mother--might have a happy, comfortable, above all leisurely, old age.

But she had enough common sense to see that Elsa laboured under the
weight of a very great sorrow, and while the girl was in such a
condition of grief it would be worse than useless to worry her with
suggestions of matrimony. Girls had been known to do desperate things if
they were overharassed, and Kapus Irma was no fool; she knew what she
wanted, and her instinct, coupled with her greed and cupidity, showed
her the best way to get it.

So she left Elsa severely alone for a time, left her to pursue her
household duties, to look after her father, to wash and iron the finery
of the more genteel inhabitants of Marosfalva--the schoolmistress'
blouses, Pater Bonifácius' surplices. Erös Béla continued in his
unemotional attentions to her--he was more sure of success than ever.
His words of courtship were the drops of water that were ultimately
destined to wear away a stone.

Elsa, lulled into security by her mother's placidity and Béla's apparent
simple friendship, hardly was conscious of the precise moment when the
siege against her passive resistance was once more resumed. It was all
so gradual, so kind, so persuasive: and she had so little to look
forward to in the future. What did it matter what became of her?--whom
she married or where her home would be? She saw more of Erös Béla than
she did of anyone else, for Erös Béla was undoubtedly Irma's most
favoured competitor. Elsa knew that he was of violent temperament,
dictatorial and rough; she knew that he was fond of drink, and of the
society of Klara Goldstein, the Jewess, but she really did not care.

She had kept her promise to Andor, she had waited for him until she knew
that he never, never could come back; now she might as well obey her
mother and put herself right with God, since she cared so little what
became of her.

And the beauty of Marosfalva was tokened to Erös Béla in the spring of
the following year, and presently it was given out that the wedding
would take place on the feast of Holy Michael and All Angels at the end
of September. Congratulations poured in upon the happy pair, rejoicings
were held in every house of note in the village. Everyone was pleased at
the marriage, pleased that the noted beauty would still have her home in
Marosfalva, pleased that Erös Béla's wealth would all remain in the
place.

And Elsa received these congratulations and attended these rejoicings
with unvarying equanimity and cheerfulness. There was nothing morbid or
self-centred in the girl's attitude. People who did not know--and no
one really did--and who saw her at mass on Sundays or walking
arm-in-arm with Béla in the afternoons would say that she was perfectly
happy. Not a radiant bride certainly, not a typical Hungarian
_menyecske_ whose laughter echoes from end to end of the village, whose
merry voice rings all the day, and whose pretty bare feet trot briskly
up and down from her cottage to the river, or to the church, or to a
neighbour's house, but an equable, contented bride, a fitting wife for a
person of such high consideration as was Erös Béla.

Her manner to him was always equally pleasant, and though the young pair
did not exchange very loving glances--at any rate not in public--yet
they were never known to quarrel, which was really quite remarkable,
seeing that Béla's temper had not improved of late.

He was giving way to drink more than he used to, and there were some
ugly rumours about my lord the Count's dissatisfaction with his
erstwhile highly-valued bailiff. Many people said that Béla would get
his dismissal presently if he did not mend his ways; but then he very
likely wouldn't care if he did get dismissed, he was a rich man and
could give his full time to cultivating his own land.

This afternoon, while he was talking with Irma and sullenly watching his
future wife, he appeared to be quite sober, until a moment ago when
unreasoning rage seized hold of him and he shouted to Elsa in a rough
and peremptory manner. After that, his face, which usually was quite
pallid, became hotly flushed, and his one seeing eye had a restless,
quivering look in it.

Nor did Elsa's placid gentleness help to cool his temper. When he
shouted to her she turned and faced him, and said with a pleasant--if
somewhat vague smile:

"Yes, Béla, what is it you want?"

"What is it I want?" he muttered, as he sank back into his chair, and
resting his elbows on the table he buried his chin in his hands and
looked across at the girl with a glowering and sullen look; "what is it
I want?" he reiterated roughly. "I want to know what has been the matter
with you these last two days?"

"Nothing has been the matter with me," she replied quietly, "nothing
unusual, certainly. Why do you ask?"

"Because for the last two days you have been going about with a face on
you fit for a funeral, rather than for a wedding. What is it? Let's have
it."

"Nothing, Béla. What should it be?"

"I tell you there is something," he rejoined obstinately, "and what's
more I can make a pretty shrewd guess what it is, eh?"

"I don't know what you mean," she said simply.

"I mean that the noted beauty of Marosfalva does me the honour of being
jealous. Isn't that it, now? Oh! I know well enough, you needn't be
ashamed of it, jealousy does your love for me credit, and flatters me, I
assure you."

"I don't know what you mean, Béla," she reiterated more firmly. "I am
neither jealous nor ashamed."

"Not ashamed?" he jeered. "Oho! look at your flaming cheeks! Irma néni,
haven't you a mirror? Let her see how she is blushing."

"I don't see why she should be jealous," interposed Irma crossly, "nor
why you should be for ever teasing her. I am sure she has no cause to be
ashamed of anything, or of being jealous of anyone."

"But I tell you that she is jealous of Klara Goldstein!" he maintained.

"What nonsense!" protested the mother, while the blush quickly fled
from the young girl's cheeks, leaving them clear and bloodless.

"I tell you she is," he persisted, with wrathful doggedness; "she has
been sullen and moody these last two days, ever since I insisted that
Klara Goldstein shall be asked to-morrow to the farewell banquet and the
dance."

"Well, I didn't see myself why you wanted that Jewess to come," said
Irma dryly.

"That's nobody's business," he retorted. "I pay for the entertainment,
don't I?"

"You certainly do," she rejoined calmly. "We couldn't possibly afford to
give Elsa her maiden's farewell, and if you didn't pay for the supper
and the gipsies, and the hire of the schoolroom, why, then, you and Elsa
would have to be married without a proper send-off, that's all."

"And a nice thing it would have been! Whoever heard of a girl on this
side of the Maros being married without her farewell to maidenhood. I am
paying for the supper and for everything because I want my bride's
farewell to be finer and grander than anything that has ever been seen
for many kilomètres round. I have stinted nothing--begrudged nothing. I
have given an ox, two pigs and a calf to be slaughtered for the
occasion. I have given chickens and sausages and some of the finest
flour the countryside can produce. As for the wine . . . well! all I can
say is that there is none better in my lord's own cellar. I have given
all that willingly. I did it because I liked it. But," he added, and
once again the look of self-satisfaction and sufficiency gave way to his
more habitual sinister expression, "if I pay for the feast, I decide who
shall be invited to eat it."

Irma apparently had nothing to say in response. She shrugged her
shoulders and continued to stir the stew in her pot. Elsa said nothing
either; obedient to the command of her future lord, she had faced him
and listened to him attentively and respectfully all the while that he
spoke, nor did her face betray anything of what went on within her soul,
anything of its revolt or of its wounded pride, while the storm of wrath
and of sneers thus passed unheeded over her head.

But Béla, having worked himself up into a fit of obstinate rage, was not
content with Elsa's passive obedience. There had from the first crept
into his half-educated but untutored and undisciplined mind the
knowledge that though Elsa was tokened to him, though she was
submissive, and gentle and even-tempered, her heart did not belong to
him. He knew but little about love, believed in it still less: in that
part of the world a good many men are still saturated with the Oriental
conception of a woman's place in the world, and even in the innermost
recesses of their mind with the Oriental disbelief in a woman's soul;
but in common with all such men he had a burning desire to possess every
aspiration and to know every thought of the woman whom he had chosen for
his wife.

Therefore now, when in response to his rage and to his bombast Elsa had
only silence for him--a silence which he knew must hide her real
thoughts, he suddenly lost all sense of proportion and of prudence; for
the moment he felt as if he could hate this woman whom he had wooed and
won despite her resistance, and in the teeth of strenuous rivalry; he
was seized with a purely savage desire to wound her, to see her cry, to
make her unhappy--anything, in fact, to rouse her from this irritating
apathy.

"I suppose," he said at last, making a great effort to recover his
outward self-control, "I suppose that you object to my asking Klara
Goldstein to come to your farewell feast?"

Thus directly appealed to by her lover, Elsa gave a direct reply.

"Yes, I do," she said.

"May I ask why?"

"A girl's farewell on the eve of her wedding-day," she replied quietly,
"is intended to be a farewell to her girl friends. Klara Goldstein was
never a friend of mine."

"She belongs to this village, anyway, doesn't she?" he queried, still
trying to speak calmly. He had risen to his feet and stood with squared
shoulders, legs wide apart, and hands buried in the pockets of his
tightly-fitting trousers. An ugly, ill-tempered, masterful man, who
showed in every line of his attitude that he meant to be supreme lord in
his own household.

"Klara Goldstein belongs to this village," he reiterated with forced
suavity, "she is my friend, is she not?"

"She may be your friend, Béla," rejoined Elsa gently, "and she certainly
belongs to this village; but she is not one of us. She is a Jewess, not
a Hungarian, like we all are."

"What has her religion to do with it?" he retorted.

"It isn't her religion, Béla," persisted the girl, with obstinacy at
least as firm as his own; "you know that quite well. Though it is an
awful thing to think that they crucified our Lord."

"Well! that is a good long while ago," he sneered; "and in any case
Klara and Ignácz Goldstein had nothing to do with it."

"No, I know. Therefore I said that religion had nothing to do with it. I
can't explain it exactly, Béla, but don't we all feel alike about that?
Hungarians are Hungarians, and Jews are Jews, and there's no getting
away from that. They are different to us, somehow. I can't say how, but
they are different. They don't speak as we do, they don't think as we
do, their Sunday is Saturday, and their New Year's day is in September.
Jewesses can't dance the csárdás and Jews have a contempt for our gipsy
music and our songs. They are Jews and we are Hungarians. It is
altogether different."

He shrugged his shoulders, unable apparently to gainsay this
unanswerable argument. After all, he too was a Hungarian, and proud of
that fact, and like all Hungarians at heart, he had an unexplainable
contempt for the Jews. But all the same, he was not going to give in to
a woman in any kind of disagreement, least of all on a point on which he
had set his heart. So now he shifted his ground back to his original
dictum.

"You may talk as much as you like, Elsa," he said doggedly, "but Klara
Goldstein is my friend, and I will have her asked to the banquet first
and the dance afterwards, or I'll not appear at it myself."

"That's clear, I hope?" he added roughly, as Elsa, in her habitual
peace-loving way, had made no comment on that final threat.

"It is quite clear, Béla," she now said passively.

"Of course the girl shall be asked, Béla," here interposed Irma néni,
who had no intention of quarrelling with her wealthy son-in-law. "I'll
see to it, and don't you lose your temper about it. Here! sit down
again. Elsa, bring your father's chair round for supper. Béla, do sit
down and have a bite. I declare you two might be married already, so
much quarrelling do you manage to get through."

But Béla, as sulky now as a bear with a sore head, refused to stay for
supper.

"I can't bear sullen faces and dark looks," he said savagely. "I'll go
where I can see pleasant smiles and have some fun. I must say, Irma
néni," he added by way of a parting shot, as he picked up his hat and
made for the door, "that I do not admire the way you have brought up
your daughter. A woman's place is not only to obey her husband, but to
look cheerful about it. However," he added, with a dry laugh, "we'll
soon put that right after to-morrow, eh, my dove?"

And with a perfunctory attempt at a more lover-like attitude, he turned
to Elsa, who already had jumped to her feet, and with a pleasant smile
was holding up her sweet face to her future lord for a kiss.

She looked so exquisitely pretty then, standing in the gloomy half-light
of this squalid room, with the slanting golden sunshine which peeped in
through the tiny west window outlining her delicate silhouette and
touching her smooth fair hair with gold.

Vanity, self-satisfaction, and mayhap something a little more tender, a
little more selfless, stirred in the young man's heart. It was fine to
think that this beautiful prize--which so many had coveted--was his by
right of conquest. Even the young lord whose castle was close by had
told Erös Béla that he envied him his good luck, whilst my lord the
Count and my lady the Countess had of themselves offered to be present
at the wedding and to be the principal witnesses on behalf of the most
beautiful girl in the county.

These pleasant thoughts softened Béla's mood, and he drew his fiancée
quite tenderly to him. He kissed her on the forehead and on the cheeks,
but she would not let him touch her lips. He laughed at her shyness, the
happy triumphant laugh of the conqueror.

Then he nodded to Irma and was gone.

"He is a very good fellow at heart," said the mother philosophically,
"you must try and humour him, Elsa. He is very proud of you really, and
think what a beautiful house you will have, and all those oxen and pigs
and a carriage and four horses. You must thank God on your knees for so
much good fortune; there are girls in this village who would give away
their ears to be standing in your shoes."

"Indeed, mother dear, I am very, very grateful for all my good fortune,"
said Elsa cheerfully, as with vigorous young arms she pulled the
paralytic's chair round to the table and then got him ready for his
meal.

After which there was a moment's silence. Elsa and her mother each stood
behind her own chair: the young girl's clear voice was raised to say a
simple grace before a simple meal.

The stew had not been put on the table, since Béla did not stay for
supper. It would do for to-morrow's dinner, and for to-night maize
porridge and rye bread would be quite sufficient.

Elsa looked after her father and herself ate with a hearty, youthful
appetite. Her mother could not help but be satisfied that the child was
happy.

The philosophy of life had taught Kapus Irma a good many lessons,
foremost among these was the one which defined the exact relationship
between the want of money and all other earthly ills. Certainly the want
of money was the father of them all. Elsa in future would never feel it,
therefore all other earthly ills would fall away from her for lack of
support.

It was as well to think that the child realized this, and was grateful
for her own happiness.



CHAPTER VIII

"I put the bunda away somewhere."


Kapus Irma went out after supper to hold a final consultation with the
more influential matrons of Marosfalva over the arrangements for
to-morrow's feast. Old Kapus had been put to bed on his paillasse in the
next room and Elsa was all alone in the small living-room. She had
washed up the crockery and swept up the hearth for the night; cloth in
hand, she was giving the miserable bits of furniture something of a
rub-down and general furbishing-up: a thing she could only do when her
mother was away, for Irma hated her to do things which appeared like a
comment on her own dirty, slatternly ways.

Cleanliness, order and a love of dainty tidiness in the home are marked
characteristics of the true Hungarian peasantry: the cottages for the
most part are miracles of brightness, brightly polished floors, brightly
polished pewter, brightly covered feather pillows. Kapus Irma was a
notable exception to the rule, and Elsa had often shed bitter tears of
shame when one or other of her many admirers followed her into her home
and saw the squalor which reigned in it--the dirt and untidiness. She
was most ashamed when Béla was here, for he made sneering remarks about
it all, and seemed to take it for granted that she was as untidy, as
slovenly as her mother. He read her long lectures about his sister's
fine qualities and about the manner in which he would expect his own
wife to keep her future home, and made it an excuse for some of his
most dictatorial pronouncements and rough, masterful ways.

But to-night even this had not mattered--though he had spoken very
cruelly about the hemp--nothing now mattered any more. To-day she had
been called for the third time in church, to-morrow evening she would
say good-bye to her maidenhood and take her place for the last time
among her girl-friends: after to-morrow's feast she would be a
matron--her place would be a different one. And on Tuesday would come
the wedding and she would be Erös Béla's wedded wife.

So what did anything matter any more? After Tuesday she would not even
be allowed to think of Andor, to dream that he had come back and that
the past two dreadful years had only been an ugly nightmare. Once she
was Erös Béla's wedded wife, it would be no longer right to think of
that last morning five years ago, of that final csárdás, and the words
which Andor had whispered: above all, it would no longer be right to
remember that kiss--his warm lips upon her bare shoulder, and later on,
out under the acacia tree, that last kiss upon her lips.

She closed her eyes for a moment; a sigh of infinite regret escaped
through her parted lips. It would have been so beautiful, if only it
could have come true! if only something had been left to her of those
enchanted hours, something more tangible than just a memory.

Resolutely now she went back to her work; for the past two years she had
found that she could imagine herself to be quite moderately happy, if
only she had plenty to do; and she did hope that Béla would allow her to
work in her new home and not to lead a life of idleness--waited on by
paid servants.

She had thrown the door wide open, and every now and then, when she
paused in her work, she could go and stand for a moment under its narrow
lintel; and from this position, looking out toward the west, she could
see the sunset far away beyond where the plain ended, where began
another world. The plumed heads of the maize were tipped with gold, and
in the sky myriads and myriads of tiny clouds lay like a gigantic and
fleecy comet stretching right over the dome of heaven above the plain to
that distant horizon far, far away.

Elsa loved to watch those myriads of clouds through the many changes
which came over them while the sun sank so slowly, so majestically down
into the regions which lay beyond the plain. At first they had been
downy and white, like the freshly-plucked feathers of a goose, then some
of them became of a soft amber colour, like ripe maize, then those far
away appeared rose-tinted, then crimson, then glowing like fire . . .
and that glow spread and spread up from the distant horizon, up and up
till each tiny cloud was suffused with it, and the whole dome of heaven
became one fiery, crimson, fleecy canopy, with peeps between of a pale
turquoise green.

It was beautiful! Elsa, leaning against the frame-work of the door,
gazed into that gorgeous immensity till her eyes ached with the very
magnificence of the sight. It lasted but a few minutes--a quarter of an
hour, perhaps--till gradually the blood-red tints disappeared behind the
tall maize; they faded first, then the crimson and the rose and the
gold, till, one by one, the army of little clouds lost their glowing
robes and put on a grey hue, dull and colourless like people's lives
when the sunshine of love has gone down--out of them.

With a little sigh Elsa turned back into the small living-room, which
looked densely black and full of gloom now by contrast with the
splendour which she had just witnessed. From the village street close by
came the sound of her mother's sharp voice in excited conversation with
a neighbour.

"It will be all right, Irma néni," the neighbour said, in response to
some remark of the other woman. "Klara Goldstein does not expect our
village girls to take much notice of her. But I will say that the men
are sharp enough dangling round her skirts."

"Yes," retorted Irma, "and I wish to goodness Béla had not set his heart
on having her at the feast. He is so obstinate: once he has said a thing
. . ."

"Béla's conduct in this matter is not to be commended, my good Irma,"
said the neighbour sententiously; "everyone thinks that for a tokened
man it is a scandal to be always hanging round that pert Jewess. Why
didn't he propose to her instead of to Elsa, if he liked her so much
better?"

"Hush! hush! my good Mariska, please. Elsa might hear you."

The two women went on talking in whispers. Elsa had heard, of course,
what they said: and since she was alone a hot blush of shame mounted to
her cheeks. It was horrid of people to talk in that way about her future
husband, and she marvelled how her own mother could lend herself to such
gossip.

Irma came in a few minutes later. She looked suspiciously at her
daughter.

"Why do you keep the door open?" she asked sharply, "were you expecting
anybody to come in?"

"Only you, mother, and Pater Bonifácius is coming after vespers,"
replied the girl.

"I stopped outside for a bit of gossip with Mariska just now. Could you
hear what she said?"

"Yes, mother. I did hear something of what Mariska said."

"About Béla?"

"About him--yes."

"Hej, child! you must not take any notice of what folks say--it is only
tittle-tattle. You must not mind it."

"I don't mind it, mother. I am sure that it is only tittle-tattle."

"Your father in bed?" asked Irma abruptly changing the subject of
conversation.

"Yes."

"And you have been busying yourself, I see," continued the mother,
looking round her with obvious disapproval, "with matters that do not
concern you. I suppose Béla has been persuading you that your mother is
incapable of keeping her own house tidy, so you must needs teach her how
to do it."

"No, mother, nothing was further from my thoughts. I had nothing to do
after I had cleared and washed up, and I wanted something to do."

"If you wanted something to do you might have got out your father's
bunda" (big sheepskin cloak worn by the peasantry) "and seen if the moth
has got into it or not. It is two years since he has had it on, and he
will want it to-morrow."

"To-morrow?"

"Why, yes. I really must tell you because of the bunda, Jankó and Móritz
and Jenö and Pál have offered to carry him to the feast in his chair
just as he is. We'll put his bunda round him, and they will strap some
poles to his chair, so that they can carry him more easily. They
offered to do it. It was to be a surprise for you for your farewell
to-morrow: but I had to tell you, because of getting the bunda out and
seeing whether it is too moth-eaten to wear."

While Irma went on talking in her querulous, acid way, Elsa's eyes had
quickly filled with tears. How good people were! how thoughtful! Was it
not kind of Móritz and Jenö and the others to have thought of giving her
this great pleasure?

To have her poor old father near her, after all, when she was saying
farewell to all her maidenhood's friends! And what a joy it would be to
him!--one that would brighten him through many days to come.

Oh! people were good! It was monstrously ungrateful to be unhappy when
one lived among these kind folk.

"Where is the bunda, mother?" she asked eagerly. "I'll see to it at
once. And if the moths are in it, why I must just patch the places up so
that they don't show. Where is the bunda, mother?"

Irma thought a moment, then she frowned, and finally shrugged her
shoulders.

"How do I know?" she said petulantly; "isn't it in your room?"

"No, mother. I haven't seen it since father wore it last."

"And that was two years ago--almost to a day. I remember it quite well.
It was quite chilly, and your father put on his bunda to go down the
street as far as the Jew's house. It was after sunset, I remember. He
came home and went to bed. The next morning he was stricken. And I put
the bunda away somewhere. Now wherever did I put it?"

She stood pondering for a moment.

"Under his paillasse?" she murmured to herself. "No. In the cupboard?
No."

"In the dower-chest, mother?" suggested Elsa, who knew of old that that
article of furniture was the receptacle for everything that hadn't a
proper place.

"Yes. Look at the bottom," said Irma placidly, "it might be there."

It was getting dark now. Through the open door and the tiny hermetically
closed windows the grey twilight peeped in shyly. The more distant
corner of the little living-room, that which embraced the hearth and the
dower-chest, was already wrapped in gloom.

Elsa bent over the worm-eaten piece of furniture: her hands plunged in
the midst of maize-husks and dirty linen of cabbage-stalks and
sunflower-seeds, till presently they encountered something soft and
woolly.

"Here is the bunda, mother," she said.

"Ah, well! get it out now, and lay it over a chair. You can have a look
at it to-morrow--there will be plenty of time before you need begin to
dress," said Irma, who held the theory that it was never any use doing
to-day what could conveniently be put off until to-morrow.

"Mayn't I have a look at it now, mother?" asked Elsa, as she struggled
with the heavy sheepskin mantle and drew it out of the surrounding
rubbish; "the light will hold out for another half-hour at least, and
to-morrow morning I shall have such a lot to do."

"You may do what you like while the light lasts, my girl, but I won't
have you waste the candle over this stupid business. Candle is very
dear, and your father will never wear his bunda again after to-morrow."

"I won't waste the candle, mother. But Pater Bonifácius is coming in to
see me after vespers."

"What does he want to come at an hour when all sensible folk are in
bed?" queried Irma petulantly.

"He couldn't come earlier, mother dear; you know how busy he is always
on Sundays . . . benediction, then christenings, then vespers. . . . He
said he would be here about eight o'clock."

"Eight o'clock!" exclaimed the woman, "who ever heard of such a
ridiculous hour? And candles are so dear--there's only a few centimètres
of it in the house."

"I'll only light the candle, mother, when the Pater comes," said Elsa,
with imperturbable cheerfulness; "I'll just sit by the open door now and
put a stitch or two in father's bunda while the light lasts: and when I
can't see any longer I'll just sit quietly in the dark, till the Pater
comes. I shall be quite happy," she added, with a quaint little sigh, "I
have such a lot to think about."

"So have I," retorted Irma, "and I shall go and do my thinking in bed. I
shall have to be up by six o'clock in the morning, I expect, and anyhow
I hate sitting up in the dark."

She turned to go into the inner room, but Elsa--moved by a sudden
impulse--ran after her and put her arms round her mother's neck.

"Won't you kiss me, mother?" she said wistfully. "You won't do it many
more times in my old home."

"A home you have often been ashamed of, my child," the mother said
sullenly.

But she kissed the girl--if not with tenderness, at any rate with a
curious feeling of pity which she herself could not have defined.

"Good-night, my girl," she said, with more gentleness than was her wont.
"Sleep well for the last time in your old bed. I doubt if to-morrow
you'll get into it at all, and don't let the Pater stay too long and
waste the candle."

"I promise, mother," said Elsa, with a smile; "good-night!"



CHAPTER IX

"Then, as now, may God protect you."


The bunda was very heavy. Elsa dragged it over her knee, and sat down on
a low stool in the open doorway. She had pulled the table a little
closer, and on it were her scissors, needles and cotton, as well as the
box of matches and the candle which she would be allowed to light
presently when Pater Bonifácius came.

The moth certainly had caused many ravages in the sheepskin cloak--there
were tiny holes everywhere, and the fur when you touched it came out in
handfuls. But as the fur would be turned inwards, that wouldn't matter
so much. The bunda was quite wearable: there was just a bad tear in the
leather close to the pocket, which might show and which must be mended.

Elsa threaded her needle, and began to hum her favourite song under her
breath:

    "Nincsen annyi tenger csillag az égen
    Mint a hányszor vagy eszembe te nékem."

    "There are not so many myriads of stars in the sky as
    the number of times that my thoughts fly to thee!"

She was determined not to think any more of the past. In a few hours now
that chapter in her life would be closed, and it was useless and wicked
to be always thinking of the "might-have-been." Rather did she set
herself resolutely to think of the future, of that part of it, at any
rate, which was bright. There would be her mother installed in that
comfortable house on the Kender Road, and with a nice bit of land and
garden round in which to grow vegetables and keep some poultry. There
would be her three cows and the pigs which Béla was giving her, and
which he would graze on his own land.

Above all, there would be the comfortable bed and armchair for the sick
man, and the little maid to wait upon him.

There was so much, so much to be thankful for! And since God chose to
take Andor away, what else was there to live for, save to see her mother
and father contented?

The light was going fast. Elsa had made a splendid job of that one
pocket. The other, too, wanted a stitch. It was very badly torn--if only
the feeble light would hold out another ten minutes . . . that hole,
too, would be securely mended.

With the splendid disregard of youth for its most precious gift, Elsa
strained her eyes to thread her needle once more.

She tackled the second pocket of the shabby bunda. There was a long tear
at the side, as if the wearer's hand had missed the actual pocket and
been thrust carelessly or roughly through the leather.

Elsa put her hand through the hole, too, to see the extent of the
mischief. Yes! that was it, her father must more than once have missed
the pocket and put his hand into the hole, making it bigger and bigger.
Why! there was a whole lot of rubbish deep down inside the lining. Elsa
drew out an empty tobacco-pouch, a bit of string, a length of tinder,
and from the very bottom, where it lay in a crinkled mass, a ball of
crumpled paper.

This she smoothed out, holding it over her knee. It was a letter--one
which must have been delivered on the very day when her father last wore
the bunda. The envelope had not been broken: old Kapus hadn't had time
to read his letter, the last which he had received before living death
encompassed him. The tears gathered in Elsa's eyes at thought of her
father handling this very letter with shaking yet still living hands:
now they were incapable even of gripping this tiny piece of paper.

But then--two years ago, her mother said it was, almost to a day when
last he wore the bunda--then he had received the letter from the postman
and evidently thrust it into his pocket, meaning to read it at some more
convenient time.

The peasants of that part of the world have never quite lost their
distrust of railways, of telegrams, and even of letters--they are
half-afraid of them all, afraid with that vague, unreasoning fear which
animals have for things they see yet cannot understand.

Elsa handled this unopened letter with something of that same fear. She
did not think at first of looking at the superscription. Who could have
been writing to her father two years ago? He had no rich friends who
could afford to spend money on note-paper and stamps. There was no news
in the great outer world which someone could have wished to impart to
him. The light indeed was very dim before Elsa, sitting here with the
old bunda on her knee, thought of looking more closely at the envelope.

She bent down and out toward the light, trying to decipher the writing.

The letter was addressed to her.

Oh! it was quite clear!

"Tekintetes Kapus Elsa kisasszonynak."

It was quite, quite clearly written. The letter was addressed to her.
The postman had brought it here two years ago: her father had taken it
from him and thrust it into the pocket of his bunda, meaning to give it
presently to his daughter.

But that evening perhaps he forgot it altogether: he had been drinking
rather heavily of late. And the next day he was stricken down with
paralysis, his tongue refused him service, and he no longer could tell
his daughter--as no doubt he wanted to do--that a letter had come for
her and that it was in the pocket of his bunda.

And the bunda was thrust away into the dower-chest with the husks of
maize and the cabbage-stalks, and it had never been taken out until
to-night--the eve of Elsa's wedding-day.

She tore open the envelope now with fingers that trembled slightly. The
light was very dim, and where the glorious sunset had been such a little
while ago there was only the dull grey canopy of an overcast sky. But
Elsa could just make out the writing: already her eye had wandered to
the signature, "your ever-devoted Andor." The message seemed to come to
her as from the grave, for she thought that these were probably Andor's
last words to her, penned just before he died in that awful hospital in
Bosnia.

     "My sweet dove!" she read. "This is to tell you that I
     am well: although it has been a close fight between
     life and death for me. But I did so want to live, my
     sweetheart, for I have you to look forward to in life.
     I have been at death's door, and I believe that the
     doctor here, before he went away one evening, signed
     the paper to say that I was dead. But that same night I
     took a turn for the better, and it was wonderful how
     soon I was up again. I'll tell you all about it some
     day, my love, some day when I come to claim your
     promise that you would wait for me. Because, dear
     heart, while I have been ill I have been thinking very
     seriously. I have not a silver florin to bless myself
     with: how can I come and dare to ask you to be my wife?
     Your father and mother would kick me out of their
     house, they would forbid me to see you; they would part
     you from me, my dear, beautiful angel, and I should
     feel that it was just. I--a good-for-nothing, penniless
     lout, daring to approach the queen of beauty, the most
     exquisite girl on God's earth. I have thought it all
     over, dear heart, and all will be well if you will be
     true to me--if you will wait for me another two years.
     Oh! I do not ask you to do it, I am not worthy of your
     love. Who am I, that you should keep yourself for
     me?--but I will pray to God night and day that He may
     not take away your love from me. I am going to America,
     dear heart, with an English gentleman who has been very
     kind to me. He was the English Consul at Cettinje, and
     when there were so many of us--Hungarian lads--lying
     sick of that awful cholera in the hospital at
     Slovnitza, his wife, a sweet, kind lady, used to come
     and visit us and cheer us up. She was very ugly and had
     big teeth and no waist, but she was an angel of
     goodness. She took some interest in me, and once when I
     was still very weak and ill I told her about you, about
     our love and what little hope I had of ever winning
     you, seeing that I was penniless. She was greatly
     interested, and when I was finally allowed to leave the
     hospital, she told me to come and see her husband, the
     English Consul. Well! dear heart, this kind gentleman
     is sending me out to a farm which he possesses in a
     place called Australia--I think that it is somewhere in
     America, but I am not sure. When I get there I shall
     receive more wage in one week than our alföld labourers
     get in three months, and it will all be good money, of
     which I can save every fillér, because my food and
     housing will be given to me free, and the kind English
     lady--may the Virgin protect her, despite her large
     teeth and flat chest--gave me a whole lot of clothes to
     take with me. So every fillér which I earn I can save,
     and I reckon that in two years I shall have saved two
     thousand florins" (about £160) "and then I shall come
     home. If I still find you free, my dove--which I pray
     to God I may do--we can get married at once. Then we'll
     rent the Lepke farm from Pali bácsi, as I shall have
     plenty of money for the necessary security, and if we
     cannot make that pay and become rich folk within three
     years, then I am not the man whom I believe myself to
     be.

     "But, my darling love, do not think for a moment that I
     want to bind you to me against your will. God only
     knows how deeply I love you; during the last three
     years the thought of you has been the sunshine of my
     days, the light of my nights. If, when you have
     received and pondered over this letter, you send me a
     reply to say that you still love me, that you will be
     true to me and will wait for my return, then you will
     change my world into a paradise. No work will be too
     hard, no difficulty too great to surmount, if it will
     help me the sooner to come back to you. But if, on the
     other hand, you tell me or leave me to guess that I am
     a fool for thinking that you would waste your beauty
     and your sweetness on waiting for a good-for-nothing
     scamp like me, why, then, I shall understand. I shall
     go out to America--or wherever that place called
     Australia may be--but maybe I shall never come back.
     But I should never curse you, dear heart, I should
     never cease to love you: I should quite understand.

     "I have got one of the nurses at the hospital to write
     this letter for me, to put my rough words into good
     Hungarian and to write down my thoughts in a good,
     clear hand. That is how it comes to be so well written.
     You know I was never much of a hand with a pen and
     paper, but I do love you, my dove! My God, how I love
     you.

     "The nurse says that Australia is not in America at
     all--that it is a different place altogether. Well! I
     do not care where it is. I am going there because there
     I can earn one hundred florins a month, and save enough
     in two years to marry you and keep you in comfort. But
     I shall not see you, my dove, before I go: if I saw you
     again, if I saw Hungary again, our village, our alföld,
     Heaven help me! but I don't think I would have the
     heart to go away again.

     "Farewell, dear heart, I go away full of hope. We go
     off next week in a big, big ship from here. I go full
     of sadness, but if you do want me to come back just
     write me a little letter with the one word 'Yes,' and
     address it as above. Then will my sadness be changed to
     heavenly joy and hope. But if it is to be 'No,' then
     tell me so quite truly, and I will understand.

     "Then, as now, may God protect you, my dove, my heart,

     "Your ever-devoted

     "ANDOR."

The letter fell out of Elsa's hands on to her knee. She took no heed of
it, she was staring out into the immensity far away, into the
fast-gathering gloom. Two years ago! Two years of sorrow and vain
regrets which never need have been. One word from her father or from the
postman, the feel of crisp paper in her father's bunda when it was put
away two years ago, and the whole course of her life would have been
changed.

The village street behind her was silent now, even the footsteps of
belated folk hurrying to their homes sent up no echo from the soft,
sandy ground. And before her the fast-gathering night was slowly
wrapping the plain in its peace-giving shroud. Inside the cottage all
was still: mother and father lay either asleep or awake thinking of the
morrow.

A great, heavy sob shook the young girl's vigorous young frame. It
seemed too wantonly cruel, this decree of Fate which had withheld from
her the light of her life. How easy it would have been to wait! How
swiftly these two years would have flown past. Her heart would have kept
young--waiting for Andor and for happiness, whereas now it was numb and
unsentient, save for a feeling of obedience and of filial duty, of pity
for her mother and father, and of resignation to her future state.

Indeed Fate was being wantonly cruel to her to the last in thus putting
before her eyes a picture of the might-have-been just when it was too
late. In a few hours from now the great vow would be spoken, the
irrevocable knot tied which bound her to another man. Her troth was
already plighted, her confession made to Pater Bonifácius--in a few
hours from now she would be Béla's wife, and if Andor did come back now,
she must be as nothing to him, he as a mere distant friend.

But probably he never would come back. He received no reply to his fond
letter of farewell, not one word from her to cheer him on his way. No
doubt by now he had made a home for himself in that far distant land.
Another woman--a stranger--revelled in the sunshine of his love, while
Elsa, whose whole life had been wrapped up in him, was left desolate.

For a moment a wild spirit of revolt rose in her. Was it too late, after
all? Was any moment in life too late to snatch at fleeing happiness? Why
shouldn't she run away to-night--now?--find that unknown country, that
unknown spot where Andor was? Surely God would give her strength! God
could not be so unjust and so cruel as men and Fate had been!

Pater Bonifácius, turning from the street round the angle of the
cottage, found her in this mood, squatting on the low stool, her elbows
on her knees, her face buried in her hands. He came up to her quite
gently, for though his was a simple soul it was full of tenderness and
of compassion for the children of these plains whom God had committed
into his charge.

"Elsa, my girl," he asked softly, "what is it?"



CHAPTER X

"The best way of all."


Pater Bonifácius had placed his kindly hand on the girl's hunched-up
shoulders, and there was something in his touch which seemed to soothe
the wild paroxysm of her grief. She raised her tear-stained face to his,
and without a word--for her lips were shaking and she could not have
spoken then--she handed him Andor's letter.

"May I go in," he asked, "and light the candle? It is too dark now to
read."

She rose quickly, and with an instinctive sense of respect for the
parish priest she made hasty efforts to smooth her hair and to wipe her
face with her apron. Then she turned into the room, and though her hand
still trembled slightly, she contrived to light the candle.

The old priest adjusted his horn-rimmed spectacles on his nose and drew
a chair close to the light.

He sat down and read Andor's letter through very slowly. When he had
finished, he handed it back to Elsa.

"God's ways, my child, are mysterious," he said, with a short sigh; "it
is not for us to question them."

"Mysterious?" exclaimed the girl, with passionate wrath; "I call them
cruel and unjust, pater! What have I done, that He should have done this
to me? Andor loved me and I loved him, he wrote me a letter full of
love, begging for a word from me to assure him that I would always love
him and that I would wait for him. Why was that letter kept from me? Why
was I not allowed to reply to it? My father would not have kept the
letter from me, had he not been stricken down with paralysis on the very
day when it came. It is God who kept my happiness away from me. It is
God who has spoilt my life and condemned me to regrets and wretchedness,
when I had done nothing to deserve such a cruel fate!"

"It is God," interposed the priest gently, "who even at this moment
forgives an erring child all the blasphemy which she utters."

Then, as Elsa, dry-eyed and with quivering lips, still looked the
personification of revolt, he placed his warm, gentle hands upon hers
and drew her a little closer to him.

"Are we, then," he asked softly, "such very important things in the
scheme of God's entire creation that everything must be ordered so as to
suit us best?"

"I only wanted to be happy," murmured Elsa, in a quivering voice.

"You only wanted to be happy in your own way, my child," rejoined the
priest, as he patted her hands tenderly, "but it does not happen to have
been God's way. Now who shall say which is the best way of being happy?
Who knows best? You or God?"

"If the postman had given me the letter, and not to father," she
murmured dully, "if father had not been stricken down with illness the
very next day, if I had only had this letter two years ago, instead of
to-day . . ."

And the sentence was left unfinished, broken by a bitter sigh of regret.

"If it all had been as you say, my child," said Pater Bonifácius kindly,
"then you might perhaps have been happy according to your own light,
whereas now you are going to be happy in accordance with that of God."

She shook her head and once more her eyes filled with tears.

"I shall never be happy again," she whispered.

"Oh, yes, you will, my dear," retorted the kindly old man, whose rugged
face--careworn and wrinkled--was lit up with a half-humorous, wholly
indulgent smile; "it is wonderful what a capacity for happiness the good
God has given to us all. The only thing is that we can't always be happy
in our own way; but the other ways--if they are God's ways--are very
much better, believe me. Why He chose to part you from Andor," he added,
with touching simplicity, "why He chose to withhold that letter from you
until to-night, we shall probably never know. But that it was His way
for your future happiness, of that I am convinced."

"There could have been no harm this time, Pater, in Andor and I being
happy in our way. There could be no wrong in two people caring for one
another, and wanting to live their lives together."

"Ah! that we shall never know, my child. The book of the
'might-have-been' is a closed one for us. Only God has the power to turn
over its pages."

"Andor and I would have been so happy!" she reiterated, with the
obstinacy of a vain regret; "and life would have been an earthly
paradise."

"And perhaps you would have forgotten heaven in that earthly paradise;
who knows, your happiness might have drawn you away from God, you might
have spent your life in earthly joys, you might have danced and sung and
thought more and more of pleasure, and less and less of God. Who knows?
Whereas now you are just going to be happy in God's way: you are going
to do your duty by your mother and your father, and, above all, by your
husband. You are going to fill your life by thoughts of God first and
then of others, instead of filling it with purely selfish joys. You are
going to walk up the road of life, my child, with duty to guide you over
the roughnesses and hard stones that will bestrew your path: and every
roughness which is surmounted, every hardship which is endured, every
sacrifice of self which is offered up to One who made the greatest
possible sacrifice for us all, will leave you happier than before . . .
happier in God's way, the best way of all."

He talked on for a long while in this gentle, heartfelt way, and
gradually, as the old man spoke, the bitterness and revolt died out of
the simple-minded child's heart. Hers, after all, was a simple
faith--but as firmly rooted within her as her belief in the sunshine,
the alternating days and nights, the turns of the season. And the kind
priest, who after life's vicissitudes had found anchorage in this
forlorn village in the midst of the plains, knew exactly how to deal
with these childlike souls. Like those who live their lives upon the
sea, the Hungarian peasant sees only immensity around him, and above him
that wonderful dome which hides its ineffable mysteries behind glorious
veils of sunset and sunrise, of storm and of fantastic clouds. The plain
stretches its apparently limitless expanse to a distance which he--its
child--has never reached. Untutored and unlearned, he does not know what
lies beyond that low-lying horizon into whose arms the sun sinks at
evening in a pool of fire.

Everything around him is so great, so vast, so wonderful--the rising and
setting of the sun, the stars and moon at nights, the gathering storms,
the rainfalls, the sowing of the maize and the corn, the travail of the
earth and the growing and developing of the stately heads of maize from
one tiny, dried, yellow grain--that he has no inclination for petty
casuistry, for arguments or philosophy. God's work is all that he ever
sees: the book of life and death the only one he reads.

And because of that simple faith, that sublime ignorance, Elsa found
comfort and peace in what Pater Bonifácius said. I will not say that she
ceased to regret, nor that the grief of her heart was laid low, but her
heart was soothed, and to her already heavy sorrow there was no longer
laid the additional burden of a bitter resentment.

Then for awhile after he had spoken the priest was silent. No one knew
better than he did the exact value of silence, whilst words had time to
sink in. So they both remained in the gloom side by side--he the
consoler and she the healed. The flickering candle light played curious
and fantastic tricks with their forms and faces, lighting up now and
then the wrinkled, wizened face of the old man, with the horn-rimmed
spectacles perched upon his nose, and now and then the delicate profile
of the girl, the smooth, fair tresses and round, white neck.

"Shall we not say a little prayer together?" whispered Pater Bonifácius
at last, "just the prayer which our dear Lord taught us--Our Father
which art in heaven . . ."

Slowly the young girl sank on her knees beside the gentle comforter; her
fair head was bowed, her face hidden in her hands. Word for word now she
repeated after him the sublime invocation taught by Divine lips.

And when the final whispered Amen ceased to echo in the low, raftered
room, Pater Bonifácius laid his hand upon the child's head in a gesture
of unspoken benediction.



CHAPTER XI

"After that, happiness will begin."


Pater Bonifácius' kindliness, his gentle philosophy and unquestioning
faith exercised a soothing influence over Elsa's spirits. The one moment
of rebellion against Fate and against God, before the arrival of the old
priest, had been the first and the last.

There is a goodly vein of Oriental fatalism still lurking in the
Hungarians: "God has willed it!" comes readily enough to their lips.
Though this unsophisticated child of the plains suffered none the less
than would her more highly-cultured sisters in the West, yet she was
more resigned--in her humble way, more philosophical--accepting the
inevitable with an aching heart, mayhap, but with a firm determination
to make the best of the few shreds of happiness which were left to her.

Elsa had promised before God and before the whole village that she would
marry Erös Béla on the feast of St. Michael and All Angels, and after
that single thought of rebellion, she knew that on the following Tuesday
this would have to be just as surely as the day follows the night and
the night the day.

Even that selfsame evening, after the Pater had gone and before she went
to bed, she made her final preparations for the next three days, which
were the turning-points of her life. To-morrow her farewell banquet: a
huge feast in the big schoolroom, hired expressly for the occasion.
Fifty people would sit down to that, they were the most intimate
friends of the contracting parties, hers and Béla's, and her mother's.
It is the rule that the bride's parents provide this entertainment, but
Kapus Benkó and his wife had not the means for it, and Erös Béla,
insisting upon a sumptuous feast, was ready enough to pay for this
gratification of his own vanity.

After the banquet, dancing would begin and would be kept up half the
night. Then the next morning was the wedding-day. The wedding Mass in
the morning, then the breakfast, more dancing, more revelling, more
jollification, also kept up throughout the night. For it is only on the
day following, that the bridegroom goes to fetch his bride out of her
home, to conduct her to his own with all the pomp and circumstance which
his wealth allows. So many carts, so many oxen, so many friends in the
carts, and so many gipsies to make music while the procession slowly
passes up the village street.

All that was, of course, already arranged for. The banquet for to-morrow
was prepared, the ox roasted whole, the pigs and the capons stuffed.
Erös Béla had provided everything, and provided most lavishly. Fifty
persons would sit down to the farewell banquet, and more like two
hundred to the wedding-breakfast; the village was agog with excitement,
gipsies from Arad had been engaged, my lord the Count and the Countess
were coming to the wedding Mass! . . . how could one feeble, weak,
ignorant girl set her will against this torrent?

Elsa, conscious of her helplessness, set to with aching heart, but
unwavering determination to put the past entirely behind her.

What was the good of thinking, since Fate had already arranged
everything?

She went to bed directly after the Pater went away, because there was
no more candle in the house, and because her mother kept calling
querulously to her; and having stretched her young limbs out upon the
hard paillasse, she slept quite peacefully, because she was young and
healthy and did not suffer from nerves, and because sorrow had made her
very weary.

And the next morning, the dawn of the first of those all-important three
days, found her busy, alert, quite calm outwardly, even though her
cheeks had lost something of their rosy hue, and her blue eyes had a
glitter in them which suggested unshed tears.

There was a lot to do, of course: the invalid to get ready, the mother's
dressing to see to, so that she should not look slovenly in her
appearance, and call forth some of those stinging remarks from Béla
which had the power to wound the susceptibilities of his fiancée.

Irma was captious and in a tearful humour, bemoaning the fact that she
was too poor to pay for her only daughter's farewell repast.

"Whoever heard of a bridegroom paying for his fiancée's farewell?" she
said. "You will despise your poor parents now, Elsa."

It was certainly an unusual thing under the circumstances; the maiden's
farewell to the friends of her girlhood, to their parents and
belongings, is a great event in this part of the world in connection
with the wedding festivities themselves, of which it is the precursor.
The parents of the bride invariably provide the entertainment, and do so
in accordance with their means.

But Erös Béla was a proud man in the county: he would not hear of any
festival attendant upon his marriage being less than gorgeous and
dazzling before the eyes of the whole countryside. He chose to pay the
piper, so that he might call the tune, and though Elsa--wounded in her
own pride--did her best to protest, she was overruled by her mother, who
was only too thankful to see this expensive burden taken from off her
shoulders.

Kapus Irma was a proud mother to-day, for as Elsa finally stood before
her, arrayed in all her finery for the coming feast, she fully justified
her right to be styled "the beauty of the county."

A picture she looked from the top of her small head, with its smooth
covering of fair hair, yellow as the ripening corn, to the tips of her
small, arched feet, encased in the traditional boots of bright crimson
leather.

Her fair hair was plaited closely from the crown of her head and tied up
with strands of red, white and green ribbons, nor did the hard line of
the hair drawn tightly away from the face mar the charm of its round
girlishness. It gave it its own peculiar character--semi-oriental, with
just a remaining _soupçon_ of that mysterious ancestry whose traditions
are lost in the far-off mountains of Thibet.

The tight-fitting black corslet spanned the girlish figure, and made it
look all the more slender as it seemed to rise out of the outstanding
billows of numberless starched petticoats. Necklace and earrings made of
beads of solid gold--a present from Béla to his fiancée--gave a touch of
barbaric splendour to this dainty apparition, whilst her bare shoulders
and breast, her sturdy young arms and shapely, if toil-worn, hands made
her look as luscious a morsel of fresh girlhood as ever gladdened the
heart of man.

Irma surveyed her daughter from head to foot with growing satisfaction.
Then, with a gesture of unwonted impulse, she took the young girl by the
shoulders and, drawing her closely to her own bony chest, she imprinted
two sounding kisses on the fresh, pale cheeks.

"There," she said lustily, "your mother's kiss ought to put some colour
in those cheeks. Heigho, child!" she added with a sigh, as she wiped a
solitary tear with the back of her hand, "I don't wonder you are pale
and frightened. It is a serious step for a girl to take. I know how I
felt when your father came and took me out of my mother's house! But for
you it is so easy: you are leaving a poor, miserable home for the finest
house this side of the Maros and a life of toil and trouble for one of
ease! To-day you are still a maid, to-morrow you will be a married
woman, and the day after that your husband will fetch you with six carts
and forty-eight oxen and a gipsy band and all his friends to escort you
to your new home, just as every married woman in the country is fetched
from her parents' home the day after she has spoken her marriage vows.
After that your happiness will begin: you will soon forget the wretched
life you have had to lead for years, helping me to put maize into a
helpless invalid's mouth."

"I shall never forget my home, dear mother," said Elsa earnestly, "and
every fillér which I earned and which helped to make my poor father
comfortable was a source of happiness to me."

"Hm!" grunted the mother dryly, "you have not looked these past two
years as if those sources of happiness agreed with you."

"I shall look quite happy in the future, mother," retorted Elsa
cheerily; "especially when I have seen you and father installed in that
nice house in the Kender Road, with your garden and your cows and your
pigs and a maid to wait on you."

"Yes," said Irma naïvely, "Béla promised me all that if I gave you to
him: and I think that he is honest and will keep to his promise."

Then, as Elsa was silent, she continued fussily:

"There, now, I think I had better go over to the schoolroom and see that
everything is going on all right. I don't altogether trust Ilona and her
parsimonious ways. Such airs she gives herself, too! I must go and show
her that, whatever Béla may have told her, I am the hostess at the
banquet to-day, and mean to have things done as I like and not as she
may choose to direct. . . . Now mind you don't allow your father to
disarrange his clothes. Móritz and the others will be here by about
eleven, and then you can arrange the bunda round him after they have
fixed the carrying-poles to his chair. We sit down to eat at twelve
o'clock, and I will come back to fetch you a quarter of an hour before
that, so that you may walk down the street and enter the banqueting
place in the company of your mother, as it is fitting that you should
do. And don't let anyone see you before then: for that is not proper.
When you fix the bunda round your father's shoulders, make all the men
go out of the house before you enter the room. Do you understand?"

"Yes, mother."

"You know how particular Béla is that everything should be done in
orderly and customary style, don't you?"

"Yes, mother," replied Elsa, without the slightest touch of irony; "I
know how much he always talks about propriety."

"Though you are not his wife," continued Irma volubly, "and won't be
until to-morrow, you must begin to-day to obey him in all things. And
you must try and be civil to Klara Goldstein, and not make Béla angry by
putting on grand, stiff airs with the woman."

"I will do my best, mother dear," said Elsa, with a quick short sigh.

"Good-bye, then," concluded Irma, as she finally turned toward the door,
"don't crumple your petticoats when you sit down, and don't go too near
the hearth, there is some grease upon it from this morning's breakfast.
Don't let anyone see you and wait quietly for my return."

Having delivered herself of these admonitions, which she felt were
incumbent upon her in her interesting capacity as the mother of an
important bride, Irma at last sailed out of the door. Elsa--obedient to
her mother and to convention, did not remain standing beneath the lintel
as she would have loved to do on this beautiful summer morning, but drew
back into the stuffy room, lest prying eyes should catch sight of the
heroine of the day before her state entry into the banqueting hall.

With a weary little sigh she set about thinking what she could do to
kill the next two hours before Móritz and Jenö and those other kind lads
came to take her father away. With the door shut the room was very dark:
only a small modicum of light penetrated through the solitary, tiny
window. Elsa drew a chair close beside it and brought out her mending
basket and work-box. But before settling down she went back into the
sleeping-room to see that the invalid was not needing her.

Of course he always needed her, and more especially to-day, one of the
last that she would spend under his roof. He was not tearful about her
departure--his senses were too blunt now to feel the grief of
separation--he only felt pleasantly excited, because he had been told
that Móritz and Jenö and the others were coming over presently and that
they meant to carry him in his chair, just as he was, so that he could
be present at his daughter's "maiden's farewell." This had greatly
elated him: he was looking forward to the rich food and the luscious
wine which his rich future son-in-law was providing for his guests.

And now, when Elsa came to him, dressed in all her pretty finery, he
loved to look on her, and his dulled eyes glowed with an enthusiasm
which had lain atrophied in him these past two years.

He was like a child now with a pretty doll, and Elsa, delighted at the
pleasure which she was giving him, turned about and around, allowed him
to examine her beautiful petticoats, to look at her new red boots and to
touch with his lifeless fingers the beads of solid gold which her fiancé
had given her.

Suddenly, while she was thus displaying her finery for the benefit of
her paralytic father, she heard the loud bang of the cottage door.
Someone had entered, someone with a heavy footstep which resounded
through the thin partition between the two rooms.

She thought it must be one of the young men, perhaps, with the poles for
the carrying-chair; and she wondered vaguely why he had come so early.

She explained to the invalid that an unexpected visitor had come, and
that she must go and see what he wanted; and then, half ashamed that
someone should see her contrary to her mother's express orders and to
all the proprieties, she went to the door and opened it.

The visitor had not closed the outer door when he had entered, and thus
a gleam of brilliant September daylight shot straight into the narrow
room; it revealed the tall figure of a man dressed in town clothes, who
stood there for all the world as if he had a perfect right to do so, and
who looked straight on Elsa as she appeared before him in the narrow
frame of the inner door.

His face was in full light. She recognized him in the instant.

But she could not utter his name, she could not speak; her heart began
to beat so fast that she felt that she must choke.

The next moment his arms were round her, he kicked the outer door to
with his foot, and then he dragged her further into the room; he called
her name, and all the while he was laughing--laughing with the glee of a
man who feels himself to be supremely happy.



CHAPTER XII

"It is too late."


And now there he was, as of old, sitting, as was his wont, on the corner
of the table, his two strong hands firmly grasping Elsa's wrists. She
held him a little at arm's length, frightened still at the suddenness of
his apparition here--on this day--the day of her farewell feast.

When first he drew her to him, she had breathed his name--softly panting
with excitement, "Andor!"

The blood had rushed to her cheeks, and then flowed back to her heart,
leaving her pale as a lily. She did not look at him any more after that
first glance, but held her head bent, and her eyes fixed to the ground.
Slowly the tears trickled down her cheeks one by one.

But he did not take his glowing, laughing eyes away from her, though he,
too, was speechless after that first cry of joy:

"Elsa!"

He held her wrists and in a happy, irresponsible way was swinging her
arms out and in, all the while that he was drinking in the joy of seeing
her again.

Surely she was even more beautiful than she had ever been before. He did
not notice that she was dressed as for a feast, he did not heed that she
held her head down and that heavy tears fell from her eyes. He had
caught the one swift look from her blue eyes when she first recognized
him: he had seen the blush upon her cheeks then; the look and the blush
had told him all that he wanted to know, for they had revealed her soul
to him. Manlike, he looked no further. Happiness is such a natural thing
for wretched humanity to desire, that it is so much easier to believe in
it than in misery when it comes.

At last he contrived to say a few words.

"Elsa! how are you, my dove?" he said naïvely.

"I am quite well, thank you, Andor," she murmured through her tears.

Then she tried to draw her wrists out of his tenacious clutch.

"May I not kiss you, Elsa?" he asked, with a light, happy laugh--the
laugh of a man sure of himself, and sure of the love which will yield
him the kiss.

"If you like, Andor," she replied.

She could not have denied him the kiss, not just then, at any rate, not
even though every time that his warm lips found her eyes, her cheeks,
her neck, she felt such a pain in her heart that surely she thought that
she must die of it.

After that he let her wrists go, and she went to sit on a low stool,
some little distance away from him. Her cheeks were glowing now, and it
was no use trying to disguise her tears. Andor saw them, of course, but
he did not seem upset by them: he knew that girls were so different to
men, so much more sensitive and tender: and so now he was only chiding
himself for his roughness.

"I ought to have prepared you for my coming, Elsa," he said. "I am
afraid it has upset you."

"No, no, Andor, it's nothing," she protested.

"I did want to surprise you," he continued naïvely. "Not that I ever
really doubted you, Elsa, even though you never wrote to me. I thought
letters do get astray sometimes, and I was not going to let any
accursed post spoil my happiness."

"No, of course not, Andor."

"You did not write to me, did you, Elsa?" he asked.

"No, Andor. I did not write."

"But you had my letter? . . . I mean the one which I wrote to you before
I sailed for Australia."

"The postman," she murmured, "gave it to father when it came. Then the
next day father was stricken with paralysis; he never gave it to me.
Only last night . . ."

"My God," he broke in excitedly, "and yet you remained true to me all
this while, even though you did not know if I was alive or dead! Holy
Mother of God, what have I done to deserve such happiness?"

Then as she did not speak--for indeed the words in her throat were
choked by her tears--he continued talking volubly, like a man who is
intoxicated with the wine of joy:

"Oh! I never doubted you, Elsa! But I had planned my home-coming to be a
surprise to you. It was not a question of keeping faith, of course,
because you were never tokened to me, therefore I just wanted to read in
your dear eyes exactly what would come into them in the first moment of
surprise . . . whether it would be joy or annoyance, love or
indifference. And I was not deceived, Elsa, for when you first saw me
such a look came into your eyes as I would not exchange for all the
angels glances in Paradise."

Elsa sighed heavily. She felt so oppressed that she thought her heart
must burst. Andor's happiness, his confidence made the hideous truth
itself so much more terrible to reveal. And now he went on in the same
merry, voluble way.

"I went first to Goldstein's this morning. I thought Klara would tell me
some of the village gossip to while away the time before I dared present
myself here. I didn't want Pali bácsi or anybody to see me before I had
come to you. I didn't want anybody to speak to me before I had kissed
you. The Jews I didn't mind, of course. So I got Klara to walk with me
by a round-about way through the fields as far as this house; then I lay
in wait for a while, until I saw Irma néni go out. I wanted you all to
myself at once . . . with no one by to intercept the look which you
would give me when first you recognized me."

"And . . . did Klara tell you anything?" she murmured under her breath.

"She told me of uncle Pali's illness," he said, more quietly, "and how
he seemed to have fretted about me lately . . . and that everyone here
thought that I was dead."

"Yes. What else?"

"Nothing else much," he replied, "for you may be sure I would not do
more than just mention your sweet name before that Jewess."

"And . . . when you mentioned my name . . . did she say anything?"

"No. She laughed rather funnily, I thought. But of course I would not
take any notice. She had always been rather jealous of you. And now that
I am a rich man . . ."

"Yes, Andor?"

"When I say a rich man," he said, with a careless shrug of his broad
shoulders, "I only mean comparatively, of course. I have saved three
thousand crowns"--(about £120)--"not quite as much as I should have
liked; but things are dear out there, and there was my passage home and
clothes to pay for. Still! three thousand crowns are enough to pay down
as a guarantee for a really good farm, and if Klara Goldstein spoke the
truth, and Pali bácsi is really so well disposed toward me, why, I need
not be altogether ashamed to present myself before your parents. Need I,
my dove?"

"Before my parents?" she murmured.

"Why, yes," he said, as he rose from the table now and came up quite
close to her, looking down with earnest, love-filled eyes on the
stooping figure of this young girl, who held all his earthly happiness
in her keeping; "you knew what I meant, Elsa, did you not, when I came
back to you the moment that I could, after all these years? It was only
my own poverty which kept me from your side all this long while. But you
did not think that I had forgotten you, did you, Elsa?--you could not
think that. How could a man forget you who has once held you in his arms
and kissed those sweet lips of yours? Why, there has not been a day or
night that I did not think of you. . . . Night and day while I worked in
that land which seemed so far away from home. Homesick I was--very
often--and though we all earned good money out there, the work was hard
and heavy; but I didn't mind that, for I was making money, and every
florin which I put by was like a step which brought me nearer to you."

"Andor!"

The poor girl was almost moaning now, for every word which he spoke was
like a knife-thrust straight into her heart.

"Being so far away from home," he continued, speaking slowly and very
earnestly now, in a voice that quivered and shook with the depth of the
sentiment within him, "being so far away from home would have been like
hell to me at times. I don't know what there is, Elsa, about this land
of Hungary! how it holds and enchains us! but at times I felt that I
must lie down and die if I did not see our maize-fields bordered with
the tall sunflowers, our distant, low-lying horizon on which the rising
and the setting sun paints such glowing colours. This land of Australia
was beautiful too: there were fine fields of corn and vast lands
stretching out as far as the eye could reach; but it was not Hungary.
There were no white oxen with long, slender horns toiling patiently up
the dusty high roads, the storks did not build their nests in the tall
acacia trees, nor did the arms of distant wells stretch up toward the
sky. It was not Hungary, Elsa! and it would have been hell but for
thinking of you. The life of an exile takes all the life out of one. I
have heard of some of our Hungarian lads out in America who get so ill
with homesickness that they either die or become vicious. But then," he
added, with a quick, characteristic return to his habitual light-hearted
gaiety, "it isn't everyone who is far from home who has such a bright
star as I had to gaze at in my mind . . . when it came night time and
the lights were put out . . ."

"Andor!" she pleaded.

But he would not let her speak just then. He had not yet told her all
that there was to say, and perhaps the innate good-heartedness in him
suggested that she was discomposed, that she would prefer to sit quietly
and listen whilst she collected her thoughts and got over the surprise
of his sudden arrival.

"Do you know, Elsa," he now said gaily, "I chalked up the days--made
marks, I mean, in a book which I bought in Fiume the day before we
sailed. Seven hundred and thirty days--for I never meant to stay away
more than two years; and every evening in my bunk on board ship and
afterwards in the farm where I lodged, I scratched out one of the marks
and seemed to feel myself getting a little bit nearer and then nearer to
you. By the Saints, my dove," he added, with a merry laugh, "but you
should have seen me the time I got cheated out of one of those
scratches. I had forgotten that accursed twenty-ninth of February last
year. I don't think that I have ever sworn so wickedly in my life
before. I had to go to Melbourne pretty soon, I tell you, and make
confession of it to the kind Pater there. And then . . ."

He paused abruptly. The laughter died upon his lips and the look of
gaiety out of his eyes, for Elsa sat more huddled up in herself than
before. He could no longer see her face, for that was hidden in her
hands, he only saw her bowed shoulders, and that they were shaking as if
the girl had yielded at last to a paroxysm of weeping.

"Elsa!" he said quietly, as a puzzled frown appeared between his brows,
"Elsa! . . . you don't say anything . . . you . . . you . . ."

He passed his rough hand across his forehead, on which rose heavy beads
of perspiration. For the first time in the midst of his joy and of his
happiness a hideous doubt had begun to assail him.

A hideous, horrible, poison-giving doubt!

"Elsa!" he pleaded, and his voice grew more intense, as if behind it
there was an undercurrent of broken sobs, "Elsa, what is the matter? You
are not going to turn your back on me, are you? Look at me, Elsa! look
at me! You wouldn't do it, would you . . . you wouldn't do it? . . . The
Lord forgive me, but I love you, Elsa . . . I love you fit to kill."

He was babbling like a child, and now he fell on his knees beside that
low stool on which she sat hunched up, a miserable bundle of suffering
womanhood. He hid his face in her petticoats--those beautiful, starched
petticoats that were not to be crumpled--and all at once his manliness
broke down in the face of this awful, awful doubt, and he sobbed as if
his heart would break.

"Andor! Andor!" she cried, overwhelmed with pity for him, pity for
herself, with the misery and the hopelessness of it all. "Andor, I beg
of you, pull yourself together. Someone might come . . . they must not
see you like this."

She put her hand upon his head and passed her cool, white fingers
through his hair. The gentle, motherly gesture soothed him: her words
brought him back to his senses. Gradually his sobs were stilled; he made
a great effort to become quite calm, and with a handkerchief wiped the
tears and perspiration from his face.

Then he rose and went back to the table, and sat down on the corner of
it as he always liked to do. The workings of his face showed the effort
which he made to keep his excitement and those awful fears in check.

"You are quite right, Elsa," he said calmly. "Someone might come, and it
would not be a very fine home-coming for Lakatos Andor, would it? to be
found crying like an infant into a woman's petticoats. Why, what would
they think? That we had quarrelled, perhaps, on this my first day at
home. God forgive me, I quite lost myself that time, didn't I? It was
foolish," he added, with heartbroken anxiety, "wasn't it, Elsa?"

"Yes, Andor," she said simply.

"It was foolish," he reiterated, still speaking calmly, even though his
voice was half-choked with sobs, "it was foolish to think that you would
turn your back on a fellow who had just lived these past five years for
you."

"It isn't that, Andor," she murmured.

"It isn't that?" he repeated dully, and once more the frown of awful
puzzlement appeared between his dark, inquiring eyes. "Then what is it?
No, no, Elsa!" he added quickly, seeing that she threw a quick look of
pathetic anxiety upon him, "don't be afraid, my dove. I am not going to
make a fool of myself again. You . . . you are not prepared to marry me
just now, perhaps . . . not just yet?--is that it? . . . You have been
angry with me. . . . I am not surprised at that . . . you never got my
letter . . . you thought that I had forgotten you . . . and you want to
get more used to me now that I am back . . . before we are properly
tokened. . . . Is that it, Elsa? . . . I'll have to wait, eh?--till the
spring, perhaps . . . till we have known one another better again . . .
then . . . perhaps . . ."

He was speaking jerkily, and always with that burning anxiety lurking in
the tone of his voice. But now he suddenly cried out like a poor
creature in pain, vehemently, appealingly, longing for one word of
comfort, one brief respite from this intolerable misery.

"But you don't speak, Elsa! . . . you don't speak. . . . My God, why
don't you speak?"

And she replied slowly, monotonously, for now she seemed to have lost
even the power of suffering pain. It was all so hopeless, so dreary, so
desolate.

"I can never marry you, Andor."

He stared at her almost like one demented, or as if he thought that she,
perhaps, had lost her reason.

"I can never marry you," she repeated firmly, "for I am tokened to Erös
Béla. My farewell banquet is to-day; to-morrow is my wedding day; the
day after I go to my new home. I can never marry you, Andor. It is too
late."

She watched him while she spoke, vaguely wondering within her poor,
broken heart when that cry of agony would escape his lips. His face had
become ghastly in hue, his mouth was wide open as if ready for that cry;
his twitching fingers clutched at the neckband of his shirt.

But the cry never came: the wound was too deep and too deadly for
outward expression. He said nothing, and gradually his mouth closed and
his fingers ceased to twitch. Presently he rose, went to the door, and
pulled it open; he stood for a moment under the lintel, his arm leaning
against the frame of the door, and the soft September breeze blew
against his face and through his hair.

From far away down the village street came the sound of laughter and of
singing. The people of Marosfalva were very merry to-day, for it was
Kapus Elsa's wedding time and Erös Béla was being lavish with food and
wine and music. Nobody guessed that in this one cottage sorrow, deep and
lasting, had made a solemn entry and never meant to quit these two
loving hearts again.



CHAPTER XIII

"He must make you happy."


Andor shut the door once more. He did not want the people of the village
to see him just now.

He turned back quietly into the room, and went to sit at his usual
place, across the corner of the table. Elsa, mechanically, absently, as
one whose mind and soul and heart are elsewhere, was smoothing out the
creases in her gown made wet by Andor's tears.

"How did it all come about, Elsa?" he asked.

"Well, you know," she replied listlessly, "since Klara Goldstein told
you--that everyone here believed that you were dead. I did not believe
it myself for a long time, though I did think that if you had lived you
would have written to me. Then, as I had no news from you . . . no news
. . . and mother always wished me to marry Béla . . . why! I thought
that since you were dead nothing really mattered, and I might as well do
what my mother wished."

"My God!" he muttered under his breath.

"We were so poor at home," she continued, in that same listless,
apathetic voice, for indeed she seemed to have lost all capacity even
for suffering, "and father was so ill . . . he wanted comfort and good
food, and mother and I could earn so very little . . . Béla promised
mother that nice house in the Kender Road, he promised to give her cows
and pigs and chickens. . . . What could I do? It is sinful not to obey
your parents . . . and it seemed so selfish of me to nurse thoughts of
one whom I thought dead, when I could give my own mother and father all
the comforts they wanted just by doing what they wished. . . . I had to
think of father and mother, Andor. . . . What could I do?"

"That is so, Elsa," he assented, speaking very slowly and deliberately.
. . . "That is so, of course . . . I understand . . . I ought to have
known . . . to have guessed something of the kind at any rate. . . . My
God!" he added, with renewed vehemence, "but I do seem to have been an
accursed fool!--thinking that everything would go on just the same while
I was weaving my dreams out there on the other side of the globe. . . .
I ought to have guessed, I suppose, that they wouldn't leave you alone
. . . you the prettiest girl in the county. . . ."

"I held out as long as I could. . . . But I felt that if you were dead
nothing really mattered."

"My poor little dove," he whispered gently.

Gradually he felt a great calmness descending over him. It was her
helplessness that appealed to him, the pathos of her quiet resignation:
he felt how mean and unmanly it would be to give way to that rebellious
rage which was burning in his veins. Three years under the orders of
ofttimes brutal petty officers had taught him a measure of
self-restraint; the two further years of hard, unceasing toil under
foreign climes, the patient amassing of florin upon florin to enable him
to come back and claim the girl whom he loved, had completed the work of
changing an irresponsible, untrammelled child of these Hungarian plains
into a strong, well-balanced, well-controlled man of a wider world. His
first instinct, when the terrible blow had been struck to all his hopes
and all his happiness, had been the wild, unreasoning desire to strike
back, and to kill. Had he been left to himself just then and then found
himself face to face with the man who had robbed him of Elsa, the
semi-civilization of the past five years would have fallen away from
him, he would once more have relapsed into the primeval, unfettered
state of his earlier manhood. The crude passions of these sons of the
soil are only feebly held in check by the laws of their land: at times
they break through their fetters, and then they are a law unto
themselves.

But Andor loved Elsa with a gentler and purer love than usually dwells
in the heart of a man of his stamp. He had proved this during the past
five years spent in daily, hourly thoughts of her. Now that he found her
in trouble, he would not add to her burden by parading his own before
her.

Manlike, his first thought had been to kill, his second to seize his
love with both arms and to carry her away with him, away from this
village, from this land, if need be. After all, she was not yet a wife,
and the promise of marriage is not so sacred nor yet so binding as a
marriage vow.

He could carry her away, leaving the scandal-mongers to work their way
with her and him: he could carry her to that far-off land which he knew
already, where work was hard and money plentiful, and no one would have
the right to look down on her for what she had done. But seeing her
there, looking so helpless and so pathetic, he knew, by that unerring
intuition which only comes to a man at such times as this, that such a
dream could never be fulfilled. The future was as it was, as no doubt it
had been pre-ordained by God and by Fate: nothing that he could do or
say now would have the power to alter it. Tradition, filial duty and
perhaps a certain amount of womanly weakness too, were all ranged up
against him; but filial duty would fight harder than anything else and
would remain the conqueror in the end.

The relentless hand of the Inevitable was already upon him, and because
of it, because of that vein of Oriental fatalism which survives in every
Hungarian peasant, the tumult in his soul had already subsided, and he
was able to speak to Elsa now with absolute gentleness.

"So to-day is your maiden's farewell, is it?" he asked after awhile.

"Yes! It must be getting late," she said, as she rose from the low stool
and shook out her many starched skirts, "mother will be back directly to
fetch me for the feast."

"It will be in the schoolroom, I suppose," he said indifferently.

"Yes. And some of the lads are coming over presently to fetch father.
They have arranged to carry him all the way. Isn't it good of them?"

"To carry him all the way?" he asked, puzzled.

"Father has not moved for two years," she said simply; "he was stricken
with paralysis, you know."

"Ah, yes! Klara told me something about that."

"So in order to give me the pleasure of having father near me at my
farewell feast, Móritz and Jenö and Imre and Jankó are going to fasten
long poles to his chair and carry him to the schoolroom and back. Isn't
it good of them? And I think they mean to do the same thing to-morrow
and carry him to church. We are going to put his bunda round his
shoulders. He has not worn his bunda for two years. . . . It was
yesterday, when I took it out in order to mend it, that I found the
letter which you wrote me from Fiume. It had slipped between the pocket
and the lining and . . ."

"And are you happy, Elsa?" he broke in abruptly.

She hesitated almost imperceptibly for a moment, then she said quietly:

"Yes, Andor. I am fairly happy."

"Béla?" he asked again. "Is he fond of you?"

"I think so."

"You are not sure?"

"Oh, yes!" she said more firmly, "I am quite sure."

"He hasn't taken to drinking, has he? . . . He was a little inclined
that way at one time."

"Oh!" she said, with a shrug of her shoulders, "I don't think that he
drinks more than other fellows of his age."

She went over to the window and somewhat ostentatiously, he thought,
began turning over the contents of her work-box. There was something in
her attitude now which worried him, and she seemed more determined than
ever not to look him straight in the face.

"Elsa! I shall think the worst if you tell me nothing," he said firmly.

"There is nothing to tell, Andor."

"Yes, there is," he persisted; "there is something about Béla which
makes you unhappy and which you won't tell me. . . . Now, listen to me,
Elsa, for I mean every word which I am going to say . . . I can bring
myself to the point of seeing you married to another man and happy in
your new home, even though my own heart will break in the process . . .
but what I could never stand would be to see you married to another man
and made unhappy by him. . . . So if you won't tell me what is on your
mind with regard to Béla, I will pick a quarrel with him this afternoon,
and kill him if I can."

"Don't talk so wildly, Andor," she said, as she turned and faced him,
for she was a little frightened at his earnestness and knew that he had
it in him to act just as he said he would. "The whole thing is only
foolishness on my part, I know."

"Then there is something?" he persisted obstinately.

"Well!" she said, after a little more hesitation, "it's only that he
will go hanging about at the Goldsteins' all the time."

"Oh! it's Klara, is it?"

"I can't bear that girl," said Elsa, with sudden vehemence.

He looked at her keenly.

"You are jealous, Elsa," he said. "Is it because you love Béla?"

"I don't like his hanging round Klara," she replied evasively.

He rose from the table, drawing in his breath as he did so, with a
curious hissing sound; perhaps the pain which he felt now was harder to
bear even than that caused by the first crushing blow. The Inevitable
had indeed placed its cruel hand upon his happiness; not all the
boundless wealth of his love, of his will and of his daring could ever
give Elsa back to him again.

"I had better go now, I suppose," he said.

"Mother will be here directly," she replied, "won't you see her?"

"Not just yet, I think. I thought of asking Pater Bonifácius if he could
give me a bed for a night. Pali bácsi might not be ready for me yet."

"But you will come to my farewell feast?" asked Elsa, with that
unconscious cruelty of which good women are so often capable.

"If you wish it, Elsa," he replied.

"I do wish it," she said, "and everyone will be so happy to see you.
They would think it strange if you did not come, for everyone will know
by then that you have returned."

"Then I will come," he concluded.

He went up to her and held out his hand; she put her own upon it. Of
course he did not ask for a kiss; he had no longer a right to that.
Somehow, in the last few moments a barrier seemed to have sprung up
between him and her which had obliterated all the past. He was a
stranger now to her and she to him; that day five years ago was as if it
had never been. Béla and her plighted troth to him stood now between
Andor and that past which he must forget.

But as he stood now holding her hand, he looked at her earnestly, and
her blue eyes, dimmed but serene, met his own gaze without flinching.

"The past, Elsa," he said, "is done with. Henceforth we shall be nothing
to one another. You will forget me easily enough. . . . I wish that I
had never come back to disturb the peace which I see is rapidly
spreading over your life. My only wish now is that with you it should be
peace. My heart has already given you up to Béla--but not
unconditionally, mind. . . . He must make you happy . . . I tell you
that he must," he reiterated, almost fiercely. "If he does not, he will
have to reckon with me. Heaven help him, I say, if he is ever unkind to
you. . . . I shall see it, I shall know it. . . . I shall not leave this
village till I am assured that he means to be kind--that he _is_ kind to
you, even though my heart should break in remaining a witness to your
happiness."

He stooped, and with the innate chivalry peculiar to the Hungarian
peasantry, he kissed the small, cold hand which trembled in his grasp:
he kissed it as a noble lord would kiss the hand of a princess. Then,
without looking on her again, he walked quietly out of the house, and
Elsa was alone with yet another bitter-sweet memory to add to her store
of regrets.



CHAPTER XIV

"It is true."


By the time that Andor turned the corner of the house into the street,
he found that the news of his arrival had already spread through the
village like wildfire. Klara Goldstein's ready tongue had been at work
this past hour; she had quickly disseminated the news that the wanderer
had come home. She did not say that the malice and love of mischief in
her had caused her to say nothing to Andor about Elsa's coming wedding.
She merely told the first neighbour whom she came across that Lakatos
Andor had come back, just as she, for one, had always declared that he
would.

Andor's friends had assembled in the street in a trice; here was too
glorious an opportunity to shout and to sing and to make merry, to be
lightly missed. And Andor had always been popular before. He was doubly
so now that he had come back from America or wherever he may have been,
and had made a fortune there; he shook one hundred and fifty hands
before he could walk as far as the presbytery. The gypsies who had just
arrived by train from Arad were not allowed to proceed straight to the
schoolroom. They were made to pause in the great open place before the
church, made to unpack their instruments then and there, and to strike
up the Rákóczy March without more ado, in honour of the finest son of
Marosfalva, who had been thought dead by some, and had returned safe and
sound to his native corner of the earth.

It was with much difficulty that at last Andor succeeded in effecting
his escape and running away from the series of ovations which greeted
him when and wherever he was recognized. The women embraced him without
further ado, the men worried him to tell them some of his adventures
then and there. Above all, everyone wanted to hear how very much more
wretched, uncomfortable and God-forsaken the rest of the wide, wide
world was in comparison with Hungary in general and the village of
Marosfalva in particular.

The heartfelt, if noisy, greetings of his old friends had the effect of
soothing Andor's aching heart. The sight of his native village, the
scent of the air, the dust of the road acted as a slight compensation
for the heavy load of sorrow which otherwise would hopelessly have
weighed him down.

With a final wave of his hat he disappeared from the enraptured gaze of
his friends into the cool quietude of the presbytery garden. He stood
still for a moment behind a huge clump of tall sunflowers and gaudy
dahlias to recover his breath and rearrange his coat, which had been
mishandled quite a good deal by his friends in the excess of their joy.

From the other side of the low gate came the buzz of animated talk, his
own name oft-repeated, cries of surprise and of pleasure, when the news
reached some late-comers, and through it all the soft, pathetic murmur
of the gipsies' fiddles; they had lapsed from the inspiriting strains of
the Rákóczy March to one of the dreamy Magyar love-songs which suited
their own languid Oriental temperament far better than the martial
music.

But here, in the small presbytery garden, the world seemed to have
slipped back an hundred years or more. Perfect peace! the drowsing of
flies and wasps, the call of thrushes, the crackling of tiny twigs in
the branches of the old acacia tree in the corner! Only the flies and
the birds and the flowers seemed to live, and the air was heavy with the
pungent odour of the sunflowers.

Andor drew a long breath. He seemed suddenly to wake from a long, long
dream. It was just over five years ago that he had stood one morning
just like this in this little garden; the late roses had not then ceased
to bloom. It was the day before he had to leave Marosfalva in order to
become a soldier, and he had come after Mass to say a private good-bye
to the kind priest.

Now it seemed as if those five years were just one long dream--the
soldiering, the voyage across the sea, the two years in a strange,
strange land, all culminating in that awful cataclysm which had for ever
robbed him of happiness.

It seemed as if it _could_ not all be true, as if Elsa was even now
waiting for him to go out for a walk under the acacia trees as she had
done on that morning five years ago. Even now he pulled the bell as he
had done then, and now--as then--Pater Bonifácius himself came to the
door.

His old housekeeper had already brought the news to the presbytery of
Andor's home-coming, and the old Pater was overjoyed at seeing the
lad--now become so strong and so manly. He took Andor to his heart,
chiefly because he would not have the lad see the tears which had so
quickly come to his eyes.

"It is true then, Pater," said Andor, when he had followed the old man
into the little parlour all littered with papers and books. "It is true,
or you would not have cried when first you embraced me."

"What is true, my son?" asked the Pater.

"That Elsa is to marry Erös Béla to-morrow?"

"Yes, my son, that is true," said the priest simply.

And thus Andor knew that, at any rate, the hideous present was not a
dream.



CHAPTER XV

"That is fair, I think."


An hour later, Andor was in the street with the rest of the village
folk, watching Elsa as she walked up toward the schoolroom in the
company of her mother. Her fair hair shone like the gold beads round her
neck, and her starched petticoats swung out from her hips as she walked.

She held her head a little downcast; people thought this most becoming
in a young bride; but Andor, who stood in the forefront of the
spectators as she passed, saw that she held her head down because her
cheeks were pale and her eyes swollen with tears.

Irma néni walked beside her daughter with the proud air of a queen, and
on ahead Barna Móritz, the mayor's second son, Fehér Jenö, whose father
worked the water-mill on the Maros, and two other sturdy fellows were
carrying the bride's paralysed father shoulder high in his chair.

Just as the little procession halted for a moment before entering the
white washed school-house, Erös Béla, the bridegroom and hero of the
hour, appeared, coming from the opposite direction, and with Klara
Goldstein, the Jewess, upon his arm.

Klara--arrayed in fashionable town garments, with a huge hat covered in
feathers, a tight modern skirt that forced her to walk with mincing
steps, high-heeled shoes, open-work stockings and gloves reaching to the
elbow--was indeed a curious apparition in amongst these peasant girls,
with their bare heads and high red-leather boots and petticoats standing
round them like balloons.

Andor frowned heavily when he caught sight of her; he had seen that
Elsa's pale cheeks had become almost livid in hue and that her parted
lips trembled as if she were ready to cry.

The looks that were cast by the village folk upon the Jewess were none
too kindly, and there were audible mutterings of disapproval at Erös
Béla's conduct; but neither looks nor mutterings disconcerted Klara
Goldstein in the least. She knew well enough that envy of her
fashionable attire bore a large share in the ill-will which was
displayed against her, and the handsome Jewess, who so often had to bear
the contempt and the sneers of these Magyar peasants whom she despised,
was delighted that Erös Béla's admiration for her had induced him to
give her an opportunity of queening it for once amongst them all.

She felt that she shone in her splendour in comparison with the
pale-faced bride in all her village finery. She carried a sunshade and a
reticule, her dark hair was arranged in frisettes under her
broad-brimmed hat; she knew that the men were casting admiring glances
on her, and in any case, for the moment, she was the centre of universal
observation.

Whilst some of the young men were engaged in carrying old Kapus into the
house, a proceeding which kept the festive throng waiting outside, she
tripped up daintily to Elsa, and said in soft, cooing tones:

"It was kind of you, my dear Elsa, to include me among your personal
friends on such an important occasion. As the young Count was saying to
me only last night, 'You will give Irma néni and little Elsa vast
pleasure by your presence at the child's maiden's farewell, and mind
you wear that lovely hat which I admire so much.' So affable, the young
Count, is he not? He told me that nothing would do but when I get
married he must come himself to every feast in connection with my
wedding."

But once she had delivered these several little pointed shafts, Klara
Goldstein was far too clever to wait for a retort. Before Elsa, whose
simple mind was not up to a stinging repartee, could think of something
indifferent or not too ungracious to say, the handsome Jewess had
already spied Andor's face among the crowd.

"There is the hero of the hour, Béla," she said, turning to the
bridegroom, who had stood by surly and defiant; "these past five years
have not changed him much, eh? . . . Your future wife's old sweetheart,"
she added, with a malicious little laugh; "are you not pleased to see
him?"

Then, as Béla somewhat clumsily, and with a pretence at cordiality which
he was far from feeling, went up to Andor and held out his hand to him,
Klara continued glibly:

"Poor old Andor! he is a trifle glum now. I never told him that his
sweetheart was getting married to-morrow. Never mind, my little Andor,"
she added, turning her expressive dark eyes with a knowing look upon the
young man; "there is more fish in the Maros than has come out of it. And
I thought that you would prefer to get the truth direct from our pretty
Elsa!"

"I think you did quite right, Klara," said Andor indifferently.

But in the meanwhile Béla had contrived to come up quite close to Elsa,
and to whisper hurriedly in her ear:

"A bargain's a bargain, my dove!--you behave amiably to Klara Goldstein
and I will keep a civil tongue in my head for your old sweetheart.
. . . That is fair, I think, eh, Irma néni?" he added, turning to the
old woman.

"Don't be foolish, Béla," retorted Kapus Irma dryly. "Why you should be
for ever teasing Elsa, I cannot think. You must know that all girls feel
upset at these times, and as like as not you'll make her cry at her own
feast. And that would be a fine disgrace for us all!"

"Don't be afraid, mother," said Elsa quietly; "I don't feel the least
like crying."

"That's splendid," exclaimed Béla, with ostentatious gaiety. "Here's
Irma néni trying to teach me something about girls. As if I didn't know
about them all that there is to know. Eh, Andor, you agree with me,
don't you?" he added, turning to the other man. "We men know more about
women's moods and little tempers than their own mothers do. What? Now,
Irma néni, take your daughter into the house. There is a clatter of
dishes and bottles going on inside there which is very pleasant to the
stomach. Miss Klara, will you honour me by accepting my arm? Friends,
come in all, will you? All those, I mean, whom my wife that is to be has
invited to her last girlhood's entertainment. Irma néni, do lead the
way. Elsa looks quite pale for want of food--she had her breakfast very
early, I suppose, and got tired dressing for this great occasion. Andor,
you shall sit next to Elsa if you like. . . . You must have lots to tell
her. Your adventures among the cannibals and the lions and tigers. . . .
Eh? . . . And Irma néni shall sit next to you on the other side, and
don't let her have more wine than is good for her. Whew! but it is hot
already! Come along, friends. By thunder, Klara, but that is a fine hat
you have got on."

He talked on very volubly and at the top of his voice, making
ostentatious efforts to appear jovial and amiable to everyone; but Erös
Béla was no fool: he knew quite well that his attitude toward his bride
and toward Klara the Jewess was causing many adverse comments to go
round among his friends. But he was in a mood not to care. He was
determined that everyone should know and see that he was the master here
to-day, just as he meant to be master in his house throughout the years
to come. Like every self-enriched peasant, he attached an enormous
importance to wealth, and was inclined to have a contempt for the less
fortunate folk who had not risen out of their humble sphere as he had
done.

His wealth, he thought, had placed him above everyone else in
Marosfalva, and above the unwritten laws of traditions and proprieties
which are of more account in an Hungarian village than all the codes
framed by the Parliament which sits in Budapesth. He was proud of his
wealth, proud of his education, his book-learning and knowledge of the
world, and reckoned that these gave him the right to be a law unto
himself. His naturally domineering and masterful temperament completed
his claim to be considered the head man of Marosfalva.

The Hungarian peasants are ready enough to give deference where
deference is exacted, but, having given it, their cordial friendship
dies away. They acknowledged a social barrier more readily, perhaps,
than any other peasantry in Europe, but having once acknowledged it,
they will not admit that either party can stand on both sides of it at
one and the same time.

So now, though Erös Béla was flouting the local traditions and
proprieties by his attentions to Klara Goldstein, no one thought of
openly opposing him. Everyone was ready enough to accept his actions, as
they would those of their social superiors--the gentlemen of Arad, the
Pater, my lord the Count himself, but they were not ready to accept his
cordiality nor to extend to him their simple-minded and open-hearted
friendship.

The presence of the Jewess did not please them--she was a stranger and
an alien--she looked like a creature from another world with her tight
skirts, high-heeled shoes and huge, feathered hat. No one felt this more
keenly than Andor, whose heart had warmed out--despite its pain--at
sight of all his friends, their national costumes, their music, their
traditions--all of which had been out of his life for so long.

He felt that Klara's presence on this occasion was in itself an outrage
upon Elsa, even without Béla's conspicuously unworthy conduct. Elsa,
with her tightly-plaited hair, her balloon skirts and bare neck and
arms, looked ashamed beside this fashionable apparition all made up of
billowy lace and clinging materials.

Andor cursed beneath his breath, and ground his heel into the dust in
the impotency of his rage. He tried to remember all that the Pater had
said to him half an hour ago about forbearance and about God's will.

Personally, Andor did not altogether believe that it was God's will that
Elsa should be married to a man who would neither cherish her nor
appreciate her as she deserved to be: and it was with a heart weighed
down with foreboding as well as with sorrow that he followed the wedding
party into the school-house.



CHAPTER XVI

"The waters of the Maros flow sluggishly."


But even the bridegroom's unconventional and reprehensible conduct had
not the power to damp for long the spirits of the guests.

By the time the soup had been eaten and the glasses filled with wine,
the noise in the schoolroom had already become deafening, and no person
of moderate vocal calibre could have heard himself speak. The time had
come for everyone to talk at the top of his or her voice, for no one to
listen, and for laughter--irresponsible, immoderate laughter--to ring
from end to end of the room.

The gipsies were scraping their fiddles, blowing their clarionets and
banging their czimbalom with all the vigour of which they were capable.
They, at any rate, were determined to be heard above the din. The
leader, with his violin under his chin, had already begun his round of
the two huge tables, pausing for awhile behind every chair--just long
enough to play into the ear of every single guest his or her favourite
song.

For thus custom demands it.

There are hundreds and hundreds of Hungarian folk-songs, and to a
stranger's ear no doubt these have a great similarity among themselves,
but to a Hungarian there is a world of difference in each: for to him it
is the words that have a meaning. The songs are, for the most part,
love-songs, and all are written in that quaint, symbolic style, full of
poetic imagery, which is peculiar to the Magyar language.

When we remember that in the terrible revolution of '48, when these same
Hungarian peasant lads who composed the bulk of Kossuth's followers
fought against the Austrian army, and subsequently against the combined
armies of Russia and of Austria, when we remember that throughout that
terrible campaign they were always accompanied by their gipsy bands, we
begin to realize how great a part national music plays in the national
spirit of Hungary. The sweet, sad folk-songs rang in the fighting lads'
ears when they fell in their hundreds before the superior arms and
numbers of their powerful neighbours, they inspired them and urged them,
they helped them to win while they could, and to yield only when
overwhelming numbers finally crushed their powers of resistance. Gipsy
musicians fell beside the young soldiers, playing to them until the last
the songs that spoke to them of their village, their sweethearts and
their home. And the sweet, sad strains rang in the ears of the lads when
they closed their eyes in death.

And now when Andor--face to face with the first great sorrow of his
life--felt as if his heart must break under it, he loved to hear the
gipsy musician softly caressing the strings of his violin as he played
close to his ear the sweetest, saddest melody among all the sweet, sad
melodies in the Magyar tongue. It begins thus:

    "A Maros vize folyik csendesen!"

    "The waters of the Maros flow sluggishly--"

and it speaks of a broken-hearted lover whose sweetheart belongs to
another. Andor had never cared for it before. He used to think it too
sad, but now he understood it: it was attuned to his mood, and the soft
sound of the instrument helped him to keep his ever-growing wrath in
check, even while he was watching Elsa's pale, tearful face.

She had made pathetic efforts to remain cheerful and not to listen to
Klara's strident voice and loud, continuous laughter. Béla had
practically confined his attentions to the Jewess, and Elsa tried not to
show how ashamed she was at being so openly neglected on this occasion.
She should have been the queen of the feast, of course; the bridegroom's
thoughts should have been only for her; everyone's eyes should have been
turned on her. Instead of which she seemed of less consequence almost
than anyone else here. If it had not been for Andor, who sat next to her
and who saw to her having something to eat and drink--it was little
enough, God knows!--she might have sat here like a wooden doll.

Something of the respect which Erös Béla demanded as his own right
encompassed her, too, already: the cordiality of the past seemed to have
vanished. She was already something of a lady: "_ten's asszony_"
(honoured madam), she would be styled by and by. And this foreknowledge,
which she was gradually imbibing while everybody round her made merry,
caused her almost as much sadness as Béla's indifference towards her. It
seemed as if all brightness was destined to go out of her life after
to-day, and it was with tear-filled eyes that she looked up now and
again from her plate and gazed round upon the festive scene before her.

The whitewashed schoolroom, where on ordinary working days brown and
grimy little faces were wont to pore laboriously over slates and books,
presented now a very lively appearance.

Two huge trestle tables ran down its length, and thirty guests were
seated on benches each side of these. The girls in all their finery
wanted a deal of sitting-room, with their starched petticoats standing
out over their hips, and their bare arms and necks shone with the
vigorous application of yellow soap: and the smooth hair, fair and dark,
had an additional lustre after the stiff brushing which it had to
endure. The matrons wore darker skirts and black silk handkerchiefs tied
round their heads, ending in a bow under the chin: but everywhere
ribbons fluttered and beads jingled, and the men had spurs to their high
boots which gave a pleasing clinking when they clapped their heels
together. Overhead, hung to the ceiling, were festoons of bright pink
paper roses and still brighter green glazed calico leaves; the tables
were spread with linen cloths, and literally threatened to break down
under the weight of pewter dishes filled with delicacies of every sort
and kind--home-killed meat and home-made sausages, home-made bread and
home-grown wine. The Magyar peasant is an epicure. His rich soil and
excellent climate give him the best of food, and though, when times are
hard, he will live readily enough on maize bread and pumpkin, he knows
how to enjoy a good spread when rich friends provide it for him.

And Erös Béla had done the feast in style. Nothing was stinted. You just
had to sit down and eat your fill of roast veal or roast pork, of
fattened capons from his farmyard or of fogas[4] from the river, or of
the scores of dishes of all kinds of good things which stood temptingly
about.

[Footnote 4: A kind of pike peculiar to Hungarian rivers.]

No wonder that spirits were now running high. The gipsy band was quite
splendid, and presently Barna Móritz, the second son of the mayor--a
smart young man who would go far--was on his feet proposing the health
of the bride.

Well! Of course! One mugful was not enough to do honour to such a toast,
they had to be refilled and then filled up again: wine was so plentiful
and so good--not heady, but just a delicious white wine which tasted of
nothing but the sweet-scented grape. Soon the bridegroom rose to
respond, whereupon Fehér Jenö, whose father rented the mill from my lord
the Count, loudly desired that everyone should drink the health of
happy, lucky Erös Béla, and then, of course, the latter had to respond
again.

Elsa felt more and more every moment a stranger among them all.
Fortunately the innate kindliness of these children of the soil
prevented any chaffing remarks being made about the silence of the
bride. It is always an understood thing that brides are shy and nervous,
and though there had been known cases in Marosfalva where a bride had
been very lively and talkative at her "maiden's farewell" it was, on the
whole, considered more seemly to preserve a semi-tearful attitude,
seeing that a girl on the eve of her marriage is saying good-bye to her
parents and to her home.

The bridegroom's disgraceful conduct was tacitly ignored: it could not
be resented or even commented on without quarrelling with Erös Béla, and
that no one was prepared to do. You could not eat a man's salt and drink
his wine and then knock him on the head, which it seemed more than one
lad--who had fancied himself in love with beautiful Kapus Elsa--was
sorely inclined to do.

Kapus Benkó, in his invalid's chair, sat some distance away from his
daughter, the other side of Klara Goldstein. Elsa could not even
exchange glances with him or see whether he had everything he wanted.
Thus she seemed cut off from everyone she cared for; only Andor was near
her, and of Andor she must not even think. She tried not to meet his
gaze, tried hard not to feel a thrill of pleasure every time that she
became actively conscious of his presence beside her.

And yet it was good to feel that he was there, she had a sense that she
was being protected, that things could not go very wrong while he was
near.



CHAPTER XVII

"I am here to see that you be kind to her."


Pater Bonifácius came in at about four o'clock to remind all these
children of their duty to God.

To-day was the vigil of St. Michael and All Angels, there would be
vespers at half-past four, and the bride and bridegroom should certainly
find the time to go to church for half an hour and thank the good God
for all His gifts.

The company soon made ready to go after that. Everyone there intended to
go to church, and in the meanwhile the gipsies would have the remnants
of the feast, after which they would instal themselves in the big barn
and dancing could begin by about six.

Bride and bridegroom stood side by side, close to the door, as the
guests filed out both singly and in pairs, and as they did so they shook
each one by the hand, wished them good health after the repast, and
begged their company for the dancing presently and the wedding feast on
the morrow. Once more the invalid father, hoisted up on the shoulders of
the same sturdy lads, led the procession out of the schoolhouse, then
followed all the guests, helter-skelter, young men and maids, old men
and matrons.

The wide petticoats got in the way, the men were over bold in squeezing
the girls' waists in the general scramble, there was a deal of laughing
and plenty of shouting as hot, perspiring hands were held out one by one
to Elsa and to Béla, and voices, hoarse with merriment, proffered the
traditional "_Egésségire!_" (your very good health!), and then, like so
many birds let out of a cage, streamed out of the narrow door into the
sunlit street.

Andor had acquitted himself of the same duty, and Elsa's cool little
hand had rested for a few seconds longer than was necessary in his own
brown one. She had murmured the necessary words of invitation for the
ceremonies on the morrow, and he was still standing in the doorway when
Klara Goldstein was about to take her leave.

Klara had stayed very ostentatiously to the last, just as if she were
the most intimate friend or an actual member of the family; she had
stood beside Béla during the general exodus, her small, dark head,
crowned with the gorgeous picture hat, held a little on one side, her
two gloved hands resting upon the handle of her parasol, her foot in its
dainty shoe impatiently tapping the ground.

As the crowd passed by, scrambling in their excitement, starched
petticoats crumpled, many a white shirt stained with wine, hot,
perspiring and panting, a contemptuous smile lingered round her thin
lips, and from time to time she made a remark to Béla--always in German,
so that the village folk could not understand. But Andor, who had
learned more than his native Hungarian during his wanderings abroad,
heard these sneering remarks, and hated the girl for speaking them, and
Béla for the loud laugh with which he greeted each sally.

Now she held out her small, thin hand to Elsa.

"Your good health, my dear Elsa!" she said indifferently.

After an obvious moment of hesitation, Elsa put her toil-worn, shapely
little hand into the gloved one for an instant and quickly withdrew it
again. There was a second or two of silence. Klara did not move: she was
obviously waiting for the invitation which had been extended to everyone
else.

A little nervously she began toying with her parasol.

"The glass is going up; you will have fine weather for your wedding
to-morrow," she said more pointedly.

"I hope so," said Elsa softly.

Another awkward pause. Andor, who stood in the doorway watching the
little scene, saw that Béla was digging his teeth into his underlip, and
that his one eye had a sinister gleam in it as it wandered from one girl
to the other.

"May the devil! . . ." began Klara roughly, whose temper quickly got the
better of her airs and graces. "What kind of flea has bitten your bride,
Béla, I should like to know?"

"Flea?" said Béla with an oath, which he did not even attempt to
suppress. "Flea? No kind of a flea, I hope. . . . Look here, my dove,"
he added, turning to Elsa suddenly, "you seem to be forgetting your
duties--have you gone to sleep these last five minutes?--or can't you
see that Klara is waiting."

"I can see that Klara is waiting," replied Elsa calmly, "but I don't
know what she can be waiting for."

She was as white as the linen of her shift, and little beads of sweat
stood out at the roots of her hair. Andor, whose love for her made him
clear-sighted and keen, saw the look of obstinacy which had crept round
her mouth--the sudden obstinacy of the meek, which nothing can move. He
alone could see what this sudden obstinacy meant to her, whose natural
instincts were those of duty and of obedience. She suffered terribly at
this moment, both mentally and physically; the moisture of her forehead
showed that she suffered.

But she had nerved herself up for this ordeal: the crushed worm was
turning on the cruel foot that had trodden it for so long. She did not
mean to give way, even though she had fully weighed in the balance all
that she would have to pay in the future for this one moment of
rebellion.

Parents first and husbands afterwards are masterful tyrants in this part
of the world; the woman's place is to obey; the Oriental conception of
man's supremacy still reigns paramount, especially in the country. Elsa
knew all this, and was ready for the chastisement--either moral, mental
or even physical--which would surely overtake her, if not to-day, then
certainly after to-morrow.

"You don't know what Klara is waiting for?" asked Béla, with an evil
sneer; "why, my dove, you must be dreaming. Klara won't come to our
church, of course, but she would like to come to the ball presently, and
to-morrow to our wedding feast."

A second or perhaps less went by while Elsa passed her tongue over her
parched lips; then she said slowly:

"Since Klara does not go to our church, Béla, I don't think that she can
possibly want to come to our wedding feast."

Béla swore a loud and angry oath, and Andor, who was closely watching
each player in this moving little drama, saw that Klara's olive skin had
taken on a greenish hue, and that her gloved hands fastened almost
convulsively over the handle of her parasol.

"But I tell you . . ." began Béla, who was now livid with rage, and
turned with a menacing gesture upon his fiancée, "I tell you that . . ."

Already Andor had interposed; he, too, was pale and menacing, but he did
not raise his voice nor did he swear, he only asked very quietly:

"What will you tell your fiancée, man? Come! What is it that you want
to tell her on the eve of her wedding day?"

"What's that to you?" retorted Béla.

In this land where tempers run high, and blood courses hotly through the
veins, a quarrel swiftly begun like this more often than not ends in
tragedy. On Andor's face, in his menacing eyes, was writ the
determination to kill if need be; in that of Béla there was the vicious
snarl of an infuriated dog. Klara Goldstein was far too shrewd and
prudent to allow her name to be mixed up in this kind of quarrel. Her
reputation in the village was not an altogether unblemished one; by a
scandal such as would result from a fight between these two men and for
such a cause she might hopelessly jeopardize her chances in life, even
with her own people.

Her own common sense, too, of which she had a goodly share, told her at
the same time that the game was not worth the candle: the satisfaction
of being asked to the most important wedding in the village, and there
queening it with her fashionable clothes and with the bridegroom's
undivided attention over a lot of stupid village folk, would not really
compensate her for the scandal that was evidently brewing in the minds
of Andor and of Elsa.

So she preferred for the nonce to play the part of outraged innocence, a
part which she further emphasized by the display of easy-going
kindliness. She placed one of her daintily-gloved hands on Béla's arm,
she threw him a look of understanding and of indulgence, she cast a
provoking glance on Andor and one of good-humoured contempt on Elsa,
then she said lightly:

"Never mind, Béla! I can see that our little Elsa is a trifle nervy
to-day; she does me more honour than I deserve by resenting your great
kindness to me. But bless you, my good Béla! I don't mind. I am used to
jealousies: the petty ones of my own sex are quite endurable; it is when
you men are jealous that we poor women often have to suffer. Leopold
Hirsch, who is courting me, you know, is so madly jealous at times. He
scarce can bear anyone to look at me. As if I could help not being
plain, eh?"

Then she turned with a smile to Elsa.

"I don't think, my dear," she said dryly, "that you are treating Béla
quite fairly. He won't let you suffer from his jealousies; why should
you annoy him with yours?"

Another glance through her long, dark lashes on both the men, and Klara
Goldstein turned to go. But before she could take a step toward the
door, Béla's masterful hand was on her wrist.

"What are you doing?" he asked roughly.

"Going, my good Béla," she replied airily, "going. What else can I do? I
am not wanted here now, or later at your feast; but there are plenty in
this village and around it who will make me welcome, and their company
will be more pleasing to me, I assure you, than that of your friends. We
thought of having some tarok[5] this evening. Leopold will be with us,
and the young Count is coming. He loves a gamble, and is most amusing
when he is in the mood. So I am going where I shall be most welcome, you
see."

[Footnote 5: A game of cards--the source of much gambling in that part
of Europe.]

She tried to disengage her wrist, but he was holding her with a tight,
nervous grip.

"You are not going to do anything of the sort," he muttered hoarsely;
"she is daft, I tell you. Stay here, can't you?"

"Not I," she retorted, with a laugh. "Enough of your friends' company,
my good Béla, is as good as a feast. Look at Elsa's face! And Andor's!
He is ready to eat me, and she to freeze the marrow in my bones. So
farewell, my dear man; if you want any more of my company," she added
pointedly, "you know where to get it."

She had succeeded in freeing her wrist, and the next moment was standing
under the lintel of the door, the afternoon sun shining full upon her
clinging gown, her waving feathers and the gew-gaws which hung round her
neck. For a moment she stood still, blinking in the glare, her hands,
which trembled a little from the emotion of the past little scene,
fumbled with her parasol.

Béla turned like a snarling beast upon his fiancée.

"Ask her to stop," he cried savagely. "Ask her to stop, I tell you!"

"Keep your temper, my good Béla," said Klara over her shoulder to him,
with a laugh; "and don't trouble about me. I am used to tantrums at
home. Leo is a terror when he has a jealous fit, but it's nothing to me,
I assure you! His rage leaves me quite cold."

"But this sort of nonsense does not leave me cold," retorted Béla, who
by now was in a passion of fury; "it makes my blood boil, I tell you.
What I've said, I've said, and I'm not going to let any woman set her
will up against mine, least of all the woman who is going to be my wife.
Whether you go or stay, Klara, is your affair, but Elsa will damn well
have to ask you to stay, as I told her to do; she'll have to do as I
tell her, or . . ."

"Or what, Béla?" interposed Andor quietly.

Béla threw him a dark and sullen look, like an infuriated bull that
pauses just before it is ready to charge.

"What is it to you?" he muttered savagely.

"Only this, my friend," replied Andor, who seemed as calm as the other
was heated with passion, "only this: that I courted and loved Elsa when
she was younger and happier than she is now, and I am not going to stand
by and see her bullied and brow-beaten by anyone. Understand?"

"Take care, Béla," laughed Klara maliciously; "your future wife's old
sweetheart might win her from you yet."

"Take care of what?" shouted Béla in unbridled rage. He faced Andor, and
his one sinister eye shot a glance of deadly hatred upon him. "Let me
tell you this, my friend, Lakatos Andor. I don't know where you have
sprung from to-day, or why you have chosen to-day to do it . . . and
it's nothing to me. But understand that I don't like your presence here,
and that I did not invite you to come, and that therefore you have no
business to be here, seeing that I pay for the feast. And understand too
that I'll trouble my future wife's sweetheart to relieve her of his
presence in future, or there'll be trouble. And you may take that from
me, as my last word, my friend. Understand?"

"What an ass you are, Béla!" came as a parting shot from Klara, who had
succeeded in opening her parasol, and now stood out in the open, her
face and shoulders in shadow, looking the picture of coolness and of
good-temper.

"Andor," she added, with a pleasing smile to the young man, "you know
your way to Ignácz Goldstein's. Father and I will be pleased to see you
there at any time. The young Count will be there to-night, and we'll
have some tarok. Farewell, Béla," she continued, laughing merrily.
"Don't worry, my good man, it's not worth losing your temper about
trifles on the eve of your wedding-day. And bless your eyes! I don't
mind."

Then she swept a mock curtsy to Elsa.

"Farewell, my pretty one. Good luck to you in your new life."

She nodded and was gone. Her rippling laugh, with its harsh, ironical
ring was heard echoing down the village street.

"Call her back!" shouted Béla savagely, turning on his fiancée.

She looked him straight in that one eye which was so full of menace, and
said with meek but firm obstinacy:

"I will not."

"Call her back," he exclaimed, "you . . ."

He was almost choking with rage, and now he raised his clenched fist and
brandished it in her face.

"Call her back, or I'll . . ."

But already Andor was upon him, had seized him by collar and wrist. He
was as livid as the other man was crimson, but his eyes glowed with a
fury at least as passionate.

"And I tell you," he said, speaking almost in a whisper, very slowly and
very calmly, but with such compelling power of determination that Béla,
taken unawares, half-choked with the grip on his throat, and in agonized
pain with the rough turn on his wrist, was forced to cower before him,
"I tell you that if you dare touch her . . . Look here, my friend," he
continued, more loudly, "just now you said that you didn't know where
I'd sprung from to-day, or why I chose to-day in which to do it. Well!
Let me tell you then. God in Heaven sent me, do you see? He sent me to
be here so as to see that no harm come to Elsa through marrying a brute
like you. You have shown me the door, and I don't want to eat your salt
again and to take your hospitality, for it would choke me, I know . . .
but let me tell you this much, that if you bully Elsa . . . if you
don't make her happy . . . if you are not kind to her . . . I'll make
you regret it to your dying day."

He had gradually relaxed his hold on Béla's throat and wrist, and now
the latter was able to free himself altogether, and to readjust his
collar and the set of his coat. For a moment it almost seemed as if he
felt ashamed and repentant. But his obstinate and domineering temper
quickly got the better of this softened mood.

"You'll make me regret it, will you?" he retorted sullenly. "You think
that you will be allowed to play the guardian angel here, eh? with all
your fine talk of God in Heaven, which I am inclined to think even the
Pater would call blasphemy. I know what's at the back of your mind, my
friend, don't you make any mistake about that."

"You know what's at the back of my mind?" queried Andor, with a puzzled
frown. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," said Béla, with a return to his former swagger, "that you have
been saying to yourself this past half-hour: 'Oho! but Elsa is not
married yet! The vows are not yet spoken, and until they are I still
have my chance.' That's what you have been saying to yourself, eh, Mr.
Guardian Angel?"

"You d----d liar!"

"Oh! insulting me won't help you, my friend. And I am not going to let
you provoke me into a fight, and kill me perhaps, for no doubt that is
what you would like to do. I am not going to give Elsa up to you, you
need not think it; and you can't take her from me, you can't make her
break her solemn promise to me, without covering her with a disgrace
from which she would never recover. You know what happened when Bakó
Mariska broke off her marriage on the eve of her wedding-day, just
because Lajos had got drunk once or twice? Though her mother whipped
her for her obstinacy, and her father broke his stick across her
shoulders, the whole countryside turned against her. They all had to
leave the village, for no one would speak to Mariska. A scandal such as
that the ignorant peasants round about here will never forgive. Mariska
ultimately drowned herself in the Maros: when she no longer could stand
the disgrace that pursued her everywhere. When you thought that to make
a girl break off her engagement the day before her wedding was such an
easy matter, you had not thought of all that, had you, my friend?"

"And when you thought of frightening me by all that nonsensical talk,"
retorted Andor quietly, "you had not thought perhaps that there are
other lands in the world besides Hungary, and that I am not quite such
an ignorant peasant as those whom you choose to despise. But you have
been wasting your breath and your temper. I am not here to try and
persuade Elsa into doing what she would think wrong; but I am here to
see that at least you be kind to her."

"Pshaw!" ejaculated Béla, with a contemptuous snap of his fingers.

"Oh! you need not imagine that I wouldn't know how you treated her. I
would know soon enough. I tell you," he continued, with slow and
deliberate emphasis, "that what you do to her I shall know. I shall know
if you bully her, I shall know if you make her unhappy. I shall
know--and God help you in that case!--if you are not kind to her. Just
think in future when you speak a rough word to her that Lakatos Andor
will hear you and make you pay for every syllable. Think when you
browbeat her that Lakatos Andor can see you! For I _will_ see you, I
tell you, in spite of your turning me out of your house, in spite of
your fences and your walls. So just you ask her pardon now for your
roughness, kiss her little hand and take her to vespers. But take this
from me, my friend, that if you ever dare raise your hand against your
wife I'll pay you out for it, so help me God!"

He had sworn the last oath with solemn earnestness. Now he turned to
Elsa and took her cold little hand in his and kissed her trembling
finger-tips, then, without another look on the man whom he hated with
such an overwhelming and deadly hatred, he turned on his heel and fled
precipitately from the room.

Béla stood sullen and silent for a moment after he had gone. Wrath was
still heating his blood so that the veins in his forehead stood up like
cords. But he was not only wrathful, he also felt humiliated and
ashamed. He had been cowed and overmastered in the presence of Elsa. His
swagger and domineering ways had availed him nothing. Andor had
threatened him and he had not had the pluck or the presence of mind to
stand up to that meddling, interfering peasant.

Now it was too late to do anything; the thoughts of retaliation which
would come to his mind later on had not yet had the time to mature. All
that he knew was that he hated Andor and would get even with him some
day; for Elsa he felt no hatred, only a great wrath that she should have
witnessed his humiliation and that her obstinacy should have triumphed
against his will. The same pride in her and the same loveless desire was
still in him. He did not hate her, but he meant to make her suffer for
what he had just gone through. To him matrimony meant the complete
subjection of the woman to the will of her lord; for every rebellion,
for every struggle against that subjection she must be punished in
accordance with the gravity of her fault.

Elsa had caused him to be humiliated, and it was his firm resolve to
humiliate her before many hours had gone by. Already a plan was forming
in his brain; the quietude of vespers would, he thought, help him to
complete it.

Outside, the lads and maids were loudly demanding the appearance of the
bride and bridegroom: the vesper bell had long ago ceased its compelling
call. Erös Béla offered his silent fiancée his arm. She took it without
hesitation, and together they walked across the square to the church.



CHAPTER XVIII

"I must punish her."


The little village inn kept by Ignácz Goldstein was not more squalid,
not more dark and stuffy, than are the village inns of most countries in
Europe. Klara did her best to keep the place bright and clean, which was
no easy matter when the roads were muddy and men brought in most of the
mud of those roads on their boots, and deposited it on the
freshly-washed floors.

The tap-room was low and narrow and dark. Round the once whitewashed
walls there were rows of wooden benches with narrow trestle tables in
front of them. Opposite the front door, on a larger table, were the
bottles of wine and silvorium,[6] the jars of tobacco and black cigars,
which a beneficent government licensed Ignácz Goldstein the Jew to sell
to the peasantry.

[Footnote 6: A highly alcoholic, very raw gin-like spirit distilled from
a special kind of plum.]

The little room obtained its daylight mainly from the street-door when
it was open, for the one tiny window--on the right as you entered--was
not constructed to open, and its dulled glass masked more of daylight
than it allowed to filtrate through.

Opposite the window a narrow door led into a couple of living rooms, the
first of which also had direct access to the street.

The tap-room itself was always crowded and always busy, the benches
round the walls were always occupied, and Klara and her father were
never allowed to remain idle for long. She dispensed the wine and the
silvorium, and made herself agreeable to the guests. Ignácz saw to the
tobacco and the cigars. Village women in Hungary never frequent the
public inn: when they do, it is because they have sunk to the lowest
depths of degradation: a woman in drink is practically an unknown sight
in the land.

Klara herself, though her ways with the men were as free and easy as
those of her type and class usually are, would never have dreamed of
drinking with any of them.

This evening she was unusually busy. While the wedding feast was going
on lower down in the village, a certain number of men who liked stronger
fare than what is usually provided at a "maiden's farewell" dance, as
well as those who had had no claim to be invited, strolled into the
tap-room for a draught of silvorium, a gossip with the Jewess, or a game
of tarok if any were going.

Ignácz Goldstein himself was fond of a game. Like most of his race, his
habits were strictly sober. As he kept a cool head, he usually won; and
his winnings at tarok made a substantial addition to the income which he
made by selling spirits and tobacco. Leopold Hirsch, who kept the
village grocery store, was also an inveterate player, and, like
Goldstein, a very steady winner. But it was not the chance of a
successful gamble which brought him so often to the tap-room. For years
now he had dangled round Klara's fashionable skirts, and it seemed as if
at last his constancy was to be rewarded. While she was younger--and was
still of surpassing beauty--she had had wilder flights of ambition than
those which would lead her to rule over a village grocery store: during
those times she had allowed Leopold Hirsch to court her, without giving
him more than very cursory encouragement.

As the years went on, however, and her various admirers from Arad proved
undesirous to go to the length of matrimony, she felt more kindly
disposed toward Leo, who periodically offered her his heart and hand,
and the joint ownership of the village grocery store. She had looked
into her little piece of mirror rather more closely of late than she had
done hitherto, and had discovered two or three ominous lines round her
fine, almond-shaped eyes, and noted that her nose showed of late a more
marked tendency to make close acquaintance with her chin.

Then she began to ponder, and to give the future more serious
consideration than she had ever done before. She ticked off on her long,
pointed fingers the last bevy of her admirers on whom she might
reasonably count: the son of the chemist over in Arad, the tenant of the
Kender Road farm, the proprietor of the station cabs, and there were two
or three others; but they were certainly falling away, and she had added
no new ones to her list these past six months.

Erös Béla's formally declared engagement to Kapus Elsa had been a very
severe blow. She had really reckoned on Béla. He was educated and
unconventional, and though he professed the usual anti-Semitic views
peculiar to his kind, Klara did not believe that these were very
genuine. At any rate, she had reckoned that her fine eyes and
provocative ways would tilt successfully against the man's racial
prejudices.

Erös Béla was rich and certainly, up to a point, in love with her. Klara
was congratulating herself on the way she was playing her matrimonial
cards, when all her hopes were so suddenly dashed to the ground.

Béla was going to marry that silly, ignorant peasant girl, and she,
Klara, would be left to marry Leopold after all.

Her anger and humiliation had been very great, and she had battled very
persistently and very ably to regain the prize which she had lost. She
knew quite well that, but for the fact that she belonged to the alien
and despised race, Erös Béla would have been only too happy to marry
her. His vanity alone had made him choose Kapus Elsa. He wanted the
noted beauty for himself, because the noted beauty had been courted by
so many people, and where so many people had failed he was proud to
succeed.

Nor would he have cared to have it said that he had married a Jewess.
There is always a certain thought of disgrace attached to such a
marriage, whether it has been contracted by peer or peasant, and Erös
Béla's one dominating idea in life was to keep the respect and deference
of his native village.

But he had continued his attentions to Klara, and Klara had kept a
wonderful hold over his imagination and over his will. She was the one
woman who had ever had her will with him--only partially, of course, and
not to the extent of forcing him into matrimony--but sufficiently to
keep him also dangling round her skirts even though his whole allegiance
should have belonged to Elsa.

The banquet this afternoon had been a veritable triumph. Whatever she
had suffered through Béla's final disloyalty to herself, she knew that
Kapus Elsa must have suffered all through the banquet. The humiliation
of seeing one's bridegroom openly flaunting his admiration for another
woman must have been indeed very bitter to bear.

Not for a moment did Klara Goldstein doubt that the subsequent scene was
an act of vengeance against herself on Elsa's part. She judged other
women by her own standard, discounted other women's emotions, thoughts,
feelings, by her own. She thought it quite natural that Elsa should wish
to be revenged, just as she was quite sure that Béla was already
meditating some kind of retaliation for the shame which Andor had put
upon him and for Elsa's obstinacy and share in the matter.

She had not spoken to anyone of the little scene which had occurred
between the four walls of the little schoolroom: on the contrary she had
spoken loudly of both the bridegroom's and the bride's cordiality to her
during the banquet.

"Elsa wanted me to go to the dancing this evening," she said casually,
"but I thought you would all miss me. I didn't want this place to be
dull just because half the village is enjoying itself somewhere else."

It had been market day at Arad, and at about five o'clock Klara and her
father became very busy. Cattle-dealers and pig-merchants, travellers
and pedlars, dropped in for a glass of silvorium and a chat with the
good-looking Jewess. More than one bargain, discussed on the marketplace
of Arad, was concluded in the stuffy tap-room of Marosfalva.

"Shall we be honoured by the young Count's presence later on?" someone
asked, with a significant nod to Klara.

Everyone laughed in sympathy; the admiration of the noble young Count
for Klara Goldstein was well-known. There was nothing in it, of course;
even Klara, vain and ambitious as she was, knew that the bridge which
divided the aristocrat from one of her kind and of her race was an
impassable one. But she liked the young Count's attentions--she liked
the presents he brought her from time to time, and relished the
notoriety which this flirtation gave her.

She also loved to tease poor Leopold Hirsch. Leo had been passionately
in love with her for years; what he must have endured in moral and
mental torture during that time through his jealousy and often
groundless suspicions no one who did not know him intimately could ever
have guessed. These tortures which Klara wantonly inflicted upon the
wretched young man had been a constant source of amusement to her. Even
now she was delighted because, as luck would have it, he entered the
tap-room at the very moment when everyone was chaffing her about the
young Count.

Leopold Hirsch cast a quick, suspicious glance upon the girl, and his
dull olive skin assumed an almost greenish hue. He was not of
prepossessing appearance; this he knew himself, and the knowledge helped
to keep his jealousy and his suspicion aflame.

He was short and lean of stature and his head, with its large, bony
features, seemed too big for his narrow shoulders to carry. His
ginger-coloured hair was lank and scanty; he wore it--after the manner
of those of his race in that part of the world--in corkscrew ringlets
down each side of his narrow, cadaverous-looking face.

His eyes were pale and shifty, but every now and then there shot into
them a curious gleam of unbridled passion--love, hate or revenge; and
then the whole face would light up and compel attention by the
revelation of latent power.

This had happened now when a fellow who sat in the corner by the window
made some rough jest about the young Count. Leopold made his way to
Klara's side; his thin lips were tightly pressed together, and he had
buried his hands in the pockets of his ill-fitting trousers.

"If that accursed aristocrat comes hanging round here much more,
Klara," he muttered between set teeth, "I'll kill him one of these
days."

"What a fool you are, Leopold!" she said. "Why, yesterday it was Erös
Béla you objected to."

"And I do still," he retorted. "I heard of your conduct at the banquet
to-day. It is the talk of the village. One by one these loutish peasants
have come into my shop and told me the tale--curse them!--of how the
bridegroom had eyes and ears only for you. You seem to forget, Klara,"
he added, while a thought of menace crept into his voice, "that you are
tokened to me now. So don't try and make a fool of me, or . . ."

"The Lord bless you, my good man," she retorted, with a laugh, "I won't
try, I promise you. I wouldn't like to compete with the Almighty, who
has done that for you already."

"Klara . . ." he exclaimed.

"Oh! be quiet now, Leo," she said impatiently. "Can't you see that my
hands are as full as I can manage, without my having to bother about you
and your jealous tempers?"

She elbowed him aside and went to the counter to serve a customer who
had just arrived, and more than a quarter of an hour went by before
Leopold had the chance of another word with her.

"You might have a kind word for me to-night, Klara," he said ruefully,
as soon as a brief lull in business enabled him to approach the girl.

"Why specially to-night?" she asked indifferently.

"Your father must go by the night train to Kecskemét," he said, with
seeming irrelevance. "There is that business about the plums."

"The plums?" she asked, with a frown of puzzlement, "what plums?"

"The fruit he bought near Kecskemét. They start gathering at sunrise
to-morrow. He must be there the first hour, else he'd get shamefully
robbed. He must travel by night."

"I knew nothing about it," rejoined Klara, with an indifferent shrug of
the shoulders. "Father never tells me when he is going to be away from
home."

"No!" retorted Leopold, with a sneer, "he knows better than to give all
your gallants such a brilliant opportunity."

"Don't be a fool, Leo!" she reiterated with a laugh.

"I don't give any of them an opportunity, either," resumed the young
man, while a curious look of almost animal ferocity crept into his pale
face. "Whenever your father has to be away from home during the night, I
take up my position outside this house and watch over you until daylight
comes and people begin to come and go."

"Very thoughtful of you, my good Leo," she rejoined dryly, "but you need
not give yourself the trouble. I am well able to look after myself."

"If any man molested you," continued Leopold, speaking very calmly, "I
would kill him."

"Who should molest me, you silly fool? And anyhow, I won't have you
spying upon me like that."

"You must not call it spying, Klara. I love to stand outside this house
in the peace and darkness of the night, and to think of you quietly
sleeping whilst I am keeping watch over you. You wouldn't call a
watchdog a spy, would you?"

"I know that to-night I shan't sleep a wink," she retorted crossly,
"once father has gone. I shall always be thinking of you out there in
the dark, watching this house. It will make me nervous."

"To-night . . ." he began, and then abruptly checked himself. Once more
that quick flash of passion shot through his pale, deep-set eyes. It
seemed as if he meant to tell her something, which on second thoughts he
decided to keep to himself. Her keen, dark eyes searched his face for a
moment or two; she wondered what it was that lurked behind that high,
smooth forehead of his and within the depths of that curiously perverted
brain.

Before she had time, however, to question him, Erös Béla made noisy
irruption into the room.

He was greeted with a storm of cheers.

"Hello, Béla!"

"Not the bridegroom, surely?"

"Who would have thought of seeing you here?"

While Leopold Hirsch muttered audibly:

"What devil's mischief has brought this fellow here to-day, I wonder?"

Béla seemed in boisterous good-humour--with somewhat ostentatious
hilarity he greeted all his friends, and then ordered some of Ignácz
Goldstein's best wine for everybody all round.

"Bravo, Béla!" came from every side, together with loud applause at this
unexpected liberality.

"It is nice of you not to forget old friends," Klara whispered in his
ear, as soon as he succeeded in reaching her side.

"Whew!" he ejaculated with a sneer, "you have no idea, my good Klara,
how I've been boring myself these past two hours. Those loutish peasants
have no idea of enjoyment save their eternal gipsy music and their
interminable csárdás."

"For a man of your education, Béla," said Klara, with an insinuating
smile, "it must be odiously dull. You would far rather have had a game
of cards, wouldn't you now?"

"I would far rather have had you at that infernal dance, so as to have
had somebody to talk to," he retorted savagely.

"Oh!" she said demurely, "that would never have done. Elsa must have
such a lot to say to you herself. It would not be seemly for me to stand
in the way."

"Elsa, as you know, has that silly csárdás on the brain. She has been
dancing ever since six o'clock and has only given me about ten minutes
of her company. She seems to belong to-night to every young fool that
can dance, rather than to me."

"Ah well! When you are married you can stop all that, my good Béla. You
can forbid your wife to dance the csárdás, you know. I know many men who
do it. Then Elsa will learn to appreciate the pleasure of your
conversation. Though she is no longer very young, she is still very
ignorant. You will have to educate her . . . bring her up to your own
level of intelligence and of learning. In the meanwhile, do sit down and
drink with those who, like yourself, have come here for an hour or two
to break the monotony of perpetual czigány music and dancing."

She busied herself with drawing the corks of a number of bottles, which
she then transferred from the end of the room where she stood to the
tables at which sat her customers; she also brought out some fresh
glasses. Béla watched her for a moment or two in silence, unconscious of
the fact that he, too, was being watched by a pair of pale eyes in which
lurked a gleam of jealousy and of hate. Suddenly, as Klara brushed past
him carrying bottles and glasses, he took hold of her by the elbow and
drew her close to him.

"These louts won't stay late to-night, will they?" he whispered in her
ear.

"No, not late," she replied; "they will go on to the barn in time for
the supper, you may be sure of that. Why do you ask?"

"I will have the supper served at ten o'clock," he continued to whisper,
"but I'll not sit down to it. Not without you."

"Don't be foolish, Béla," she retorted. But even as he spoke, a little
gleam of satisfaction, of gratified vanity, of anticipatory revenge,
shot through her velvety dark eyes.

"I warned Elsa," he continued sullenly; "I told her that if you were not
at the feast, I should not be there either. She has disobeyed me. I must
punish her."

"So?" she rejoined, with an acid smile. "It is only in order to punish
Elsa that you want to sup with me?"

"Don't be stupid, Klara," he retorted. "I'll come at ten o'clock. Will
you have some supper ready for me then? I have two or three bottles of
French champagne over at my house--I'll bring them along. Will you be
ready for me?"

"Be silent, Béla," she broke in hurriedly. "Can't you see that that fool
Leo is watching us all the time?"

"Curse, him! What have I got to do with him?" muttered Béla savagely.
"You will be ready for me, Klara?"

"No!" she said decisively. "Better make your peace with Elsa. I'll have
none of her leavings. I've had all I wanted out of you to-day--the
banquet first and now your coming here. . . . It'll be all over the
village presently--and that's all I care about. Have a drink now," she
added good-humouredly, "and then go and make your peace with Elsa . . .
if you can."

She turned abruptly away from him, leaving him to murmur curses under
his breath, and went on attending to her customers; nor did he get for
the moment another opportunity of speaking with her, for Leopold Hirsch
hovered round her for some considerable time after that, and presently,
with much noise and pomp and circumstance, no less a personage than the
noble young Count himself graced the premises of Ignácz Goldstein the
Jew with his august presence.



CHAPTER XIX

"Now go and fetch the key."


He belonged to the ancient family of Rákosy, who had owned property on
both banks of the Maros for the past eight centuries, and Feri Rákosy,
the twentieth-century representative of his mediæval forbears, was a
good-looking young fellow of the type so often met with among the upper
classes in Hungary: quite something English in appearance--well set-up,
well-dressed, well-groomed from the top of his smooth brown hair to the
tips of his immaculately-shod feet--in the eyes an expression of
habitual boredom, further accentuated by the slight, affected stoop of
the shoulders and a few premature lines round the nose and mouth; and
about his whole personality that air of high-breeding and of good, pure
blood which is one of the chief characteristics of the true Hungarian
aristocracy.

He did little more than acknowledge the respectful salutations which
greeted him from every corner of the little room as he entered, but he
nodded to Erös Béla and smiled all over his good-looking face at Klara,
who, in her turn, welcomed him with a profusion of smiles which brought
a volley of muttered curses to Leopold Hirsch's lips.

While he held her one hand rather longer than was necessary she, with
the other, took his hat from him, and then, laughing coquettishly, she
pointed to a parcel which was causing the pocket of his well-cut Norfolk
jacket to bulge immoderately.

"Is that something for me?" she asked.

"Of course it is," he replied lightly; "I bought it at the fair in Arad
for you to-day."

"How thoughtful of you!" she said, with a little sigh of pleasure.

"Thoughtful?" he retorted, laughing pleasantly. "My good Klara, if I
hadn't thought of you I would have died of boredom this afternoon. Here,
give me a glass of your father's best wine and I'll tell you."

He sat down with easy familiarity on the corner of the table which
served as a counter. Klara, after this, had eyes and ears only for him.
How could it be otherwise, seeing that it was not often a noble lord
graced a village tap-room with his presence. Conversations round the
room were now carried on in whispers; tarok cards were produced and here
and there a game was in progress. Those who had drunk overmuch made
themselves as inconspicuous as they could, drawing themselves closely
against the wall, or frankly reclining across the table with arms
outstretched and heads buried between them out of sight.

An atmosphere of subdued animation and decorum reigned in the place; not
a few men, oppressed by their sense of respect for my lord, had effected
a quiet exit through the door, preferring the jovial atmosphere of the
barn, from whence came, during certain hushed moments, the sounds of
music and of laughter.

The young man--whose presence caused all this revulsion in the usually
noisy atmosphere of the tap-room--took no heed whatever of anything that
went on around him: he seemed unconscious alike of the deference of the
peasants as of the dark, menacing scowl with which Leopold Hirsch
regarded him. He certainly did not bestow a single glance on Erös Béla
who, at my lord's appearance, had retreated into the very darkest
corner of the room. Béla did not care to encounter the young Count's
sneering remarks just now--and these would of a certainty have been
levelled against the bridegroom who was sitting in a tap-room when he
should have been in attendance on his bride. But indeed my lord never
saw him.

To this young scion of a noble race, which had owned land and serfs for
centuries past, these peasants here were of no more account than his
oxen or his sheep--nor was the owner of a village shop of any more
consequence in my lord's eyes.

He came here because there was a good-looking Jewess in the tap-room
whose conversation amused him, and whose dark, velvety eyes, fringed
with long lashes, and mouth with full, red lips, stirred his jaded
senses in a more pleasant and more decided way than did the eyes and
lips of the demure, well-bred young Countesses and Baronesses who formed
his usual social circle.

Whether his flirtation with Klara, the Jewess, annoyed the girl's Jew
lover or not, did not matter to him one jot; on the contrary the
jealousy of that dirty lout Hirsch enhanced his amusement to a
considerable extent.

Therefore he did not take the trouble to lower his voice now when he
talked to Klara, and it was quite openly that he put his arm round her
waist while he held his glass to her lips--"To sweeten your father's
vinegar!" he said with a laugh.

"You know, my pretty Klara," he said gaily, "that I was half afraid I
shouldn't see you to-day at all."

"No?" she asked coquettishly.

"No, by gad! My father was so soft-hearted to allow Erös a day off for
his wedding or something, and so, if you please, I had to go to Arad
with him, as he had to see about a sale of clover. I thought we should
never get back. The roads were abominable."

"I hardly expected your lordship," she said demurely.

To punish her for that little lie, he tweaked her small ear till it
became a bright crimson.

"That is to punish you for telling such a lie," he said gaily. "You know
that I meant to come and say good-bye."

"Your lordship goes to-morrow?" she asked with a sigh.

"To shoot bears, my pretty Klara," he replied. "I don't want to go. I
would rather stay another week here for you to amuse me, you know."

"I am proud . . ." she whispered.

"So much do you amuse me that I have brought you a present, just to show
you that I thought of you to-day and because I want you not to forget me
during the three months that I shall be gone."

He drew the parcel out of his pocket and, turning his back to the rest
of the room, he cut the string and undid the paper that wrapped it. The
contents of the parcel proved to be a morocco case, which flew open at a
touch and displayed a gold curb chain bracelet--the dream of Klara
Goldstein's desires.

"For me?" she said, with a gasp of delight.

"For your pretty arm, yes," he replied. "Shall I put it on?"

She cast a swift, apprehensive glance round the room over his shoulder.

"No, no, not now," she said quickly.

"Why not?"

"Father mightn't like it. I'd have to ask him."

"D----n your father!"

"And that fool, Leopold, is so insanely jealous."

"D----n him too," said the young man quietly.

Whereupon he took the morocco case out of Klara's hand, shut it with a
snap and put it back into his pocket.

"What are you doing?" cried Klara in a fright.

"As you see, pretty one, I am putting the bracelet away for future use."

"But . . ." she stammered.

"If I can't put the bracelet on your arm myself," he said decisively,
"you shan't have it at all."

"But . . ."

"That is my last word. Let us talk of something else."

"No, no! We won't talk of something else. You said the bracelet was for
me."

She cast a languishing look on him through her long upper lashes; she
bared her wrist and held it out to him. Leopold and his jealousy might
go hang for aught she cared, for she meant to have the bracelet.

The young man, with a fatuous little laugh, brought out the case once
more. With his own hands he now fastened the bracelet round Klara
Goldstein's wrist. Then--as a matter of course--he kissed her round,
brown arm just above the bracelet, and also the red lips through which
the words of thanks came quickly tumbling.

Klara did not dare to look across the room. She felt, though she did not
see, Leopold's pale eyes watching this little scene with a glow in them
of ferocious hate and of almost animal rage.

"I won't stay now, Klara," said the young Count, dropping his voice
suddenly to a whisper; "too many of these louts about. When will you be
free?"

"Oh, not to-day," she whispered in reply. "After the fair there are sure
to be late-comers. And you know Erös Béla has a ball on at the barn and
supper afterwards. . . ."

"The very thing," he broke in, in an eager whisper. "While they are all
at supper, I'll come in for a drink and a chat. . . . Ten o'clock, eh?"

"Oh, no, no!" she protested feebly. "My father wouldn't like it, he
. . ."

"D----n your father, my dear, as I remarked before. And, as a matter of
fact, your father is not going to be in the way at all. He goes to
Kecskemét by the night train."

"How do you know that?"

"My father told me quite casually that Goldstein was seeing to some
business for him at Kecskemét to-morrow. So it was not very difficult to
guess that if your father was to be in Kecskemét to-morrow in time to
transact business, he would have to travel up by the nine o'clock train
this evening in order to get there."

Then, as she made no reply, and a blush of pleasure gradually suffused
her dark skin, lending it additional charm and giving to her eyes added
brilliancy, he continued, more peremptorily this time:

"At ten o'clock, then--I'll come back. Get rid of as many of these louts
by then as you can."

She was only too ready to yield. Not only was she hugely flattered by my
lord's attentions, but she found him excessively attractive. He could
make himself very agreeable to a woman if he chose, and evidently he
chose to do so now. Moreover Klara had found by previous experience that
to yield to the young man's varied and varying caprices was always
remunerative, and there was that gold watch which he had once vaguely
promised her, and which she knew she could get out of him if she had the
time and opportunity, as she certainly would have to-night if he came.

Count Feri, seeing that she had all but yielded, was preparing to go.
Her hand was still in his, and he was pressing her slender fingers in
token of a pledge for this evening.

"At ten o'clock," he whispered again.

"No, no," she protested once more, but this time he must have known that
she only did it for form's sake and really meant to let him have his
way. "The neighbours would see you enter, and there might be a whole lot
of people in the tap-room at that hour: one never knows. They would know
by then that my father had gone away and they would talk such scandal
about me. My reputation . . ."

No doubt he felt inclined to ejaculate in his usual manner: "D----n your
reputation!" but he thought better of it, and merely said casually:

"I need not come in by the front door, need I?"

"The back door is always locked," she remarked ingenuously. "My father
invariably locks it himself the last thing at night."

"But since he is going to Kecskemét . . ." he suggested.

"When he has to be away from home for the night he locks the door from
the inside and takes the key away with him."

"Surely there is a duplicate key somewhere? . . ."

"I don't know," she murmured.

"If you don't know, who should?" he remarked, with affected
indifference. "Well! I shall have to make myself heard at the back
door--that's all!"

"How?"

"Wouldn't you hear me if I knocked?"

"Not if I were in the tap-room and a lot of customers to attend to."

"Well, then, I should hammer away until you did hear me."

"For that old gossip Rézi to hear you," she protested. "Her cottage is
not fifty paces away from our back door."

"Then it will have to be the front door, after all," he rejoined
philosophically.

"No, no!--the neighbours--and perhaps the tap-room full of people."

"But d----n it, Klara," he exclaimed impatiently, "I have made up my
mind to come and spend my last evening with you--and when I have made up
my mind to a thing, I am not likely to change it because of a lot of
gossiping peasants, because of old Rézi, or the whole lot of them. So if
you don't want me to come in by the front door, which is open, or to
knock at the back door, which is locked, how am I going to get in?"

"I don't know."

"Well, then, you'll have to find out, my pretty one," he said
decisively, "for it has got to be done somehow, or that gold watch we
spoke of the other day will have to go to somebody else. And you know
when I say a thing I mean it. Eh?"

"There is a duplicate key," she whispered shyly, ". . . to the back
door, I mean."

"I thought there was," he remarked dryly. "Where is it?"

"In the next room. . . . It hangs on a nail by father's bedside."

"Go and get it, then," he said more impatiently.

"Not now," she urged. "Leopold is looking straight at you and me."

He shrugged his aristocratic shoulders.

"You are not afraid of that monkey?" he said with a laugh.

"Well, no! not exactly afraid. But he is so insanely jealous; one never
knows what kind of mischief he'll get into. He told me just now that
whenever father is away from home he takes his stand outside this house
from nightfall till morning--watching!"

"A modern Argus--eh?"

"A modern lunatic!" she retorted.

"Well!" resumed the young man lightly, "lunatic or not, he won't be able
to keep an eye on you to-night, even though your father will be away."

"How do you mean?"

"Hirsch is off to Fiume in half an hour."

"To Fiume?"

"Yes. You know he has a brother coming home from America."

"I know that."

"His ship is due in at Fiume the day after to-morrow. Leopold must start
by the same train as your father to-night, in order to catch the express
for Fiume at Budapesth to-morrow."

"Did he tell you all that?"

"I have known all along that he meant to meet his brother at Fiume, and
yesterday he said something about it again. So you see, my pretty one,
that we can have a comfortable little supper this evening without fear
of interruption. We'll have it at ten o'clock, when the supper-party is
going on at the barn, eh? We shan't be interrupted then. So give me that
duplicate key, will you, and I can slip in quietly through the back door
without raising a bit of gossip or scandal. Hurry up now! I shall have
to be going."

"I can't now," she protested. "Leopold hasn't taken his eyes off me all
this time."

"Oh! if that is all that is troubling you, my dear," said the young man
coolly, "I can easily settle our friend Leopold. Hirsch!" he called
loudly.

"My lord?" queried the other, with the quick obsequiousness habitual to
the down-trodden race.

"My horse is kicking up such a row outside. I wish you'd just go and see
if the boy is looking after him properly."

Of course it was impossible to do anything but obey. My lord had
commanded; in the ordinary way the poor Jew shopkeeper would have felt
honoured to have been selected for individual recognition. Nor did he do
more now than throw one of those swift looks of his--so full of hatred
and of menace--upon Klara and the young man; but the latter, having
given his orders, no longer condescended to take notice of the Jew and
had once more engaged the girl in animated conversation.

Had Klara thought of looking up when Leopold finally obeyed my lord's
commands and went to look after the horse, she could not have failed to
realize the danger which lurked in the young man's pale eyes then. His
face, always pale and olive-tinted, was now the colour of ashes, grey
and livid and blotched with purple, his lips looked white and quivering,
and his eyebrows--of a reddish tinge--met above his nose in a deep, dark
scowl.

But my lord had thrown out a casual hint about a gold watch, and Klara
had no further thought for her jealous admirer.

"Now go and fetch the key," said Count Feri, as soon as the door had
closed on Leopold.

The hint of the gold watch had stirred Klara's pulses. A _tête-à-tête_
with my lord was, moreover, greatly to her liking. He could be very
amusing when he chose, and was always generous; and Klara's life was
often dull and colourless. A pleasant evening spent in his company would
compensate her in a measure for her disappointment at not being asked to
Elsa's ball, and there was the gold watch to look forward to, above all.

Taking an opportunity when her father was absorbed in his game of tarok,
she went into the next room and presently returned with a key in her
hand, which she surreptitiously gave to my lord.

"Splendid!" exclaimed the young man gaily. "Klara, you are a gem, and
after supper you shall just ask me for anything you have a fancy for,
and I'll give it to you. Now I'd better go. Good-bye, little one. Ten
o'clock sharp, eh?"

"Ten o'clock," she repeated, under her breath.

He strode to the door, outside which he found Leopold waiting for him.

"The horse was quite quiet, my lord," said the Jew sullenly; "the boy
had never left it for a moment."

"Oh! that's all right, Hirsch," rejoined my lord indifferently. "I only
wanted to know."

Of course he never thought of saying a word of thanks or of excuse to
the other man. What would you? A Jew! Bah! not even worth a nod of the
head.

Count Feri Rákosy had quickly mounted his pretty, half-bred Arab mare--a
click of the tongue and she was off with him, kicking up a cloud of dust
in her wake.

But Leopold Hirsch had remained for a moment standing on the doorstep of
Ignácz Goldstein's house. He watched horse and rider through that cloud
of dust, and along the straight and broad highway, until both had
become a mere speck upon the low-lying horizon.

"May you break your accursed neck!" he muttered fervently.

Then he went back to the tap-room.



CHAPTER XX

"You happen to be of my race and of my blood."


He strode at once to Klara, who greeted him with an ironical little
smile and a coquettish look out of her dark eyes.

"You never told me that you were going away to-night, my dear Leopold,"
she said suavely.

"Who told you that I was?" he retorted savagely.

"It seems to be pretty well known about the place. You seemed to have
been talking about it pretty freely that you were going to Fiume to meet
your brother when the ship he is on comes in."

"I meant to tell you just now, only his lordship's arrival interrupted
me," he said more quietly.

"And since then you have been busy making a fool of yourself before my
lord, eh?" she asked.

"Bah!"

"And compromising me into the bargain, what? But let me tell you this,
my good Leopold, before we go any further, that I am not married to you
yet, and that I don't like your airs of proprietorship, _sabe_?"

He could not say anything more just then, for customers were departing,
and she had to attend to them; he did not try to approach her while she
was thus engaged, but presently, when her back was turned, he contrived
to work his way across to the door which gave on the inner room, and to
push it slightly open with his hand, until he could peep through the
aperture and take a quick survey of the room beyond.

Klara had not seen this manoeuvre of his, although she had cast more
than one rapid and furtive glance upon him while she attended to her
customers. She was thankful that he was going away for a few days; in
his present mood he was positively dangerous.

She had lighted the oil lamp which hung from the centre of the low,
raftered ceiling, the hour was getting late, customers were all leaving
now one by one.

Erös Béla was one of the last to go.

He had drunk rather more silvorium than was good for him. He knew quite
well that by absenting himself from the pre-nuptial festivals he had
behaved in a disgraceful and unjustifiable manner which would surely be
resented throughout the village, and though he was quite sure that he
did not care one brass fillér what all those ignorant peasants thought
of him, yet he felt it incumbent upon him to brace up his courage now,
before meeting the hostile fusillade of eyes which would be sure to
greet him on his return to the barn.

He meant to put in a short appearance there, and then to finish his
evening here in Klara's company. He felt that his dignity demanded that
he should absent himself at any rate from the supper, seeing that Elsa
had so grossly defied him.

"At ten o'clock I'll be back, Klara," he whispered, in the girl's ear,
as he was about to take his departure along with some of his friends,
who also intended to go on to the dance in the barn.

"Indeed you won't," she retorted decisively, "I have no use for you, my
good Béla. You are almost a married man now, remember!" she added with a
laugh.

"I'll bring those bottles of champagne," he urged; "don't be hard on me,
Klara. I'll give you a good time to-night, and a nice present into the
bargain."

"And ruin my reputation for ever, eh? By walking into the tap-room when
it's full of people and carrying two bottles of champagne under your
arm--or staying on ostentatiously after everyone has gone and for
everyone to gossip. No, thank you; I've already told you that I am not
going to lend myself to your little games of vengeance. It isn't me you
want, it's petty revenge upon Elsa. To that I say no, thank you, my good
man."

"Klara!" he pleaded.

"No!" she said, and unceremoniously turned her back on him.

He went off, sullen and morose, and not a little chaffed for his
moroseness by his friends.

The tap-room was almost deserted for the moment. In one or two corners
only a few stragglers lingered; they were sprawling across the tables
with arms outstretched. Ignácz Goldstein's silvorium had proved too
potent and too plentiful. They lay there in a drunken sleep--logs that
were of no account. Presently they would have to be thrown out, but
there was no hurry for that--they were not in the way.

Ignácz Goldstein had gone into the next room. Klara was busy tidying up
the place; Leopold approached her with well-feigned contrition and
humility.

"I am sorry, Klara," he said. "I seemed to have had the knack to-night
of constantly annoying you. So I'd best begone now, perhaps."

"I bear no malice, Leo," she said quietly.

"I thought I'd come back at about nine o'clock," he continued. "It is
nearly eight now."

She, thinking that he had his own journey in mind, remarked casually:

"You'd best be here well before nine. The train leaves at nine-twenty,
and father walks very slowly."

"I won't be late," he said. "Best give me the key of the back door. I'll
let myself in that way."

"No occasion to do that," she retorted. "The front door will be open.
You can come in that way like everybody else."

"It's just a fancy," he said quietly; "there might be a lot of people
about just then. I don't want to come through here. I thought I'd just
slip in the back way as I often do. So give me the key, Klara, will
you?"

"How can I give you the key of the back door?" she said, equally
quietly; "you know father always carries it in his coat pocket."

"But there is a second key," he remarked, "which hangs on a nail by your
father's bedside in the next room. Give me that one, Klara."

"I shan't," she retorted. "I never heard such nonsense! As if I could
allow you to use the private door of this house just as it suits your
fancy. If you want to come in to-night and say good-bye, you must come
in by the front door."

"It's just a whim of mine, Klara," urged Leopold, now still speaking
quietly--almost under his breath--but there was an ominous tremor in his
voice and sudden sharp gleams in his eyes which the girl had already
noted and which caused the blood to rush back to her heart, leaving her
cheeks pale and her lips trembling.

"Nonsense!" she contrived to say, with an indifferent shrug of the
shoulders.

"Just a whim," he reiterated. "So I'll take the key, by your leave."

He turned to the door of the inner room and pushed it open, just as he
had done awhile ago, and now--as then--he cast a rapid glance round the
room.

Klara, through half-closed lids, watched his every movement.

"Why!" he exclaimed, turning back to her, and with a look of
well-feigned surprise, "the key is not in its place."

"I know it isn't," she retorted curtly.

"Then where is it?"

"I have put it away."

"When? It was hanging on its usual nail when I first came here this
afternoon. I remember the door being open, and my glancing into the room
casually. I am sure it was there then."

"It may have been: but I put it away after that."

"Why should you have done that?"

"I don't know, and, anyhow, it's no business of yours, is it?"

"Give me that back-door key, Klara," insisted the young man, in a tone
of savage command.

"No!" she replied, slowly and decisively.

There was silence in the little, low raftered room after that, a silence
only broken by the buzzing of flies against the white globe of the lamp,
and by the snores of the sleepers who sprawled across the tables.

Leopold Hirsch had drawn in his breath with a low, hissing sound; his
face, by the yellow light of the lamp, looked ghastly in colour, and his
hands were twitching convulsively as the trembling fingers clenched and
opened with a monotonous, jerky movement of attempted self-control.

Klara had not failed to notice these symptoms of an agony of mind which
the young man was so vainly trying to hide from her. For the moment she
almost felt sorry for him--sorry and slightly remorseful.

After all, Leo's frame of mind, the agony which he endured, came from
the strength of his love for her. Neither Erös Béla, nor the young
Count, nor the many admirers who had hung round her in the past until
such time as their fancy found more permanent anchorage elsewhere, would
have suffered tortures of soul and of heart because she had indulged in
a mild flirtation with a rival. Erös Béla would have stormed and cursed,
the young Count would have laid his riding-whip across the shoulders of
his successful rival and there would have been an end of the matter.
Leopold Hirsch would go down to hell and endure the torments of the
damned, then return to heaven at a smile from her, and go back to hell
again and glory in his misery.

But just now she was frightened of him; he looked almost like a living
corpse; the skin on his face was drawn so tightly over the bones that it
gave him the appearance of a skull with hollow eyes and wide, grinning
mouth.

Outside an owl hooted dismally. Klara gave a slight shiver of fear and
looked furtively round her to see if any of the drunkards were awake.
Then she recollected that her father was in the next room, and
presently, from afar, came shouts of laughter and the sound of music.

She woke as from a nightmare, gave her fine shoulders a little shake,
and looked boldly into her jealous lover's face.

"By the Lord, Leo!" she said, with a little forced laugh, "you have
given me the creeps, looking as you do. How dare you frighten me like
that? With your clenched hands, too, as if you wanted to murder me.
There, now, don't be such a silly fool. You have got a long journey
before you; it's no use making yourself sick with jealousy just before
you go."

"I am not going on a journey," he said, in a toneless, even voice, which
seemed to come from a grave.

"Not going?" she said, with a frown of puzzlement. "You were going to
Fiume to meet your brother, don't you remember? The ship he is on is due
in the day after to-morrow. If you don't start to-night you won't be
able to catch the express at Budapesth to-morrow."

"I know all that," he said, in the same dull, monotonous tone; "I am not
going, that's all."

"But . . ."

"I have changed my mind. Your father is going away. I must watch over
you to see that no one molests you. Thieves might want to break in . . .
one never knows . . . anyhow, my brother can look after himself . . . I
stay to look after you."

For a moment or two she stood quite still, her senses strained to grasp
the meaning, the purport of the present situation--this madman on the
watch outside--the young Count, key in hand, swaggering up to the back
door at ten o'clock, when most folk would be at supper in the barn, her
father gone, the village street wrapped in darkness!

Leopold, by a violent and sudden effort, had regained mastery over the
muscles of his face and hands, these no longer twitched now, and he
answered her look of mute inquiry with one of well-feigned quietude.
Only his breath he could not control, it passed through his throat with
a stertorous sound, and every now and then he had to pass his tongue
over his dry, cracked lips.

Thus they stood for a moment eye to eye; and what she read in his
glance caused a nameless fear to strike at her heart and to paralyse her
will. But the next instant she had recovered her presence of mind. With
quick, febrile movements she had already taken off her apron and with
her hands smoothed her unruly dark hair. Then she made for the door.

Less than a second and already he had guessed her purpose: before she
could reach the door he had his back against it and his nervy fingers
had grasped her wrist.

"Where are you going?"

"Out," she said curtly.

"What for?"

"That's none of your business."

"What for?" he reiterated hoarsely.

"Let go my wrist," she exclaimed, "you are hurting me."

"I'll hurt you worse," he cried, in a broken voice, "if you cross this
threshold to-night."

But he released her wrist, and she, wrathful, indignant, terrified,
retreated to the other end of the room.

"Go out by the back door," he sneered, "if you want to go out. You have
the key, haven't you?"

"My father . . ." she began.

"Yes!" he said. "Go and tell your father that I, Leopold Hirsch, your
affianced husband, am browbeating you--making a scene, what?--because
you have made an assignation with my lord the young Count, here--at
night--under your father's roof--under the roof of a child of Israel!
You! An assignation with a dirty Christian! . . . Bah! Go and tell your
father that! And he will thrash you to within an inch of your life! We
are Jews, he and I, and hold the honour of our women sacred--more sacred
than their life!"

"Don't be a fool, Leopold," she cried, feeling that indeed, between her
father and this madman, her life had ceased to be safe. She looked round
her helplessly. Three or four besotted fools lying helpless across the
tables, and all the village dancing and making merry some two hundred
mètres away, her father--implacable, as she well knew, where her conduct
was concerned--and this madman ready to kill to satisfy his lust of
vengeance and of hate--she felt that indeed, unless Heaven performed a
miracle, here was the beginning of an awful, an irredeemable tragedy.

"Leopold, don't be a fool," she reiterated, trying with all her might
not to appear frightened or scared or confused. "I have promised Kapus
Elsa to go to her dance for half an hour. I had forgotten all about it.
I must go now."

"Go and change your dress, then," he retorted with a sneer, "then you
can go out by the back way. You have put the key away somewhere, haven't
you? You know where it is."

"You are mad about doors to-night. I tell you I am going out now, by
that front door--at once."

"And I tell you," he said, slowly and deliberately, "that if you cross
the front door step I will call your father and tell him that you go and
meet your lover--a Christian lover--the young Count--who would as soon
think of marrying you as he would a nigger or a kitchen slut. Before you
will have reached the high road your father and I will be on your heels,
and either he or I will strangle you ere you come within sight of my
lord's castle."

"You are mad!" she cried. "Or else an idiot."

"Better look for that back-door key," he retorted.

"What has the back-door key to do with it?" she asked sullenly.

"Only this," he replied, "that while that monkey-faced dog of a
Christian was whispering to you just now, I know that the key was
hanging on its usual peg, but I heard something about 'supper' and about
'ten o'clock.' May he break his neck, I say, and save me the job. Then
he ordered me out of the room. Oh! I guessed! I am no fool, you know!
When I came back I looked into your father's room--the key was gone, and
I knew. And what I say is, why can't he come in by the front door like a
man, if he has nothing to hide? Why must you let him come in like a
thief by a back-door, if you have nothing to be ashamed of? The tap-room
is open to anybody. Anybody can walk in and get a drink if they want to.
Then why this whispering and this sneaking?"

He was working himself up to a greater and ever greater passion of fury.
He kept his voice low because he didn't want Ignácz Goldstein to
hear--not just yet, at any rate--for Ignácz was a hard man and a stern
father, and God only knew what he might not do if he was roused. Leopold
did not want Klara hurt--not yet, at any rate--not until he was quite
sure that she meant to play him altogether false. She was vain and
frivolous, over-fond of dress and of queening it over the peasant girls
of the village, but there was no real harm in her. She was immensely
flattered by the young Count's attentions and over-ready to accept his
presents in exchange for kisses and whisperings behind closed doors, but
there was no real harm in her--so at least Leopold Hirsch kept repeating
to himself time and again, whenever jealousy gnawed at his heart more
roughly than he could endure.

Just now that torment was almost unbearable, and the passion of fury
into which he had worked himself blinded him momentarily to the dull,
aching pain. Klara, as he spoke thus hoarsely, and brought his contorted
face closer and closer to hers, had gradually shrunk more and more into
the corner of the room, and there she remained now, flattened against
the wall, her wide-open, terror-filled eyes fixed staringly upon this
raving madman.

"You asked just now," he continued, in the same hoarse, guttural
whisper, which seemed literally to be racking and tearing his throat as
it came, "what the back-door key had to do with my not going to meet my
brother at Fiume. Well! It has this much to do with it, that you happen
to be my tokened wife, that you happen to be of my race and of my blood,
a sober, clean-living Jewess, please God, and not one of those
frivolous, empty-headed Christian girls--you are that now, I know; if
you were not I would kill you first and myself afterwards: therefore, if
to-night I catch a thief--any thief, I don't care who he is--sneaking
into this house by a back door when you happen to be here alone and
seemingly unprotected, if I catch any kind of thief or malefactor, I say
. . ."

He paused, and she, through teeth that chattered, contrived to murmur:

"Well? What do you say? Why don't you go on?"

"Because you understand," he said, with calm as sudden and as terrible
as his rage had been awhile ago. "I am not a Christian, you know, nor
yet a gentleman. I cannot walk up either to my lord's castle or to one
of these Christian Magyar peasants and strike him in the face for trying
to rob me of that which is more precious to me than life. I am a Jew
. . . a low-born, miserable Jew, whose whole race, origin and upbringing
are despicable in the sight of the noble lords as well as of the
Hungarian peasantry. Just a wretched creature whom one orders to hold
one's horse, to brush one's boots, to stand out of one's way, anyhow;
but not to meet as man to man, not to fight openly and frankly for the
woman whom one loves. Well! You happen to be a Jewess too, and tokened
to a Jew, and if either my lord or one of these d----d Magyar peasants
chooses to come sneaking round you like a thief in the night, well
. . ."

He paused, and from the pocket of his shabby trousers he half drew out a
long, sheathed hunting-knife, and then quickly hid it again from her
sight.

Klara smothered a desperate cry of terror. Leopold now turned his back
on her; he went up to the table and seizing a carafe of water, he poured
himself out a huge mugful and drank it down at a draught. The edge of
the mug rattled against his teeth, his hand was trembling so that half
the contents were poured down on his clothes. He did not look again on
Klara, but having put the mug down, he passed his hand once or twice
across his forehead as if to chase away some of those horrible thoughts
which were still lurking in his brain.

Then he took his cigarette-case out of his pocket, selected a cigarette,
struck a match and lit it, still avoiding Klara's fixed and staring
gaze.

"I'll go and smoke this outside," he said quietly. "I can see both doors
from the corner. When you have found that back-door key you may go to
Elsa Kapus' wedding feast, but not before."

He took a final look round the room, and his eyes, which had once more
become dull and pale, rested with an infinite look of contempt upon the
two or three besotted drunkards who, throughout this scene, had done no
more than open and blink a sleepy eye.

"Shall I turn these louts out for you now?" he asked.

"No, no," she replied mechanically, "let them have their sleep. When
they wake they'll go away all right."

Just then the outer door was opened and Lakatos Andor's broad figure
appeared upon the threshold. Leopold Hirsch gave him a nod, and without
another look on Klara, he strode out into the night.



CHAPTER XXI

"Jealous, like a madman."


"I came to see if Béla was still here," said Andor, as soon as the door
had closed on Leopold Hirsch. "One or two chaps whom I met awhile ago
told me that he had not been seen in the barn this hour past, and that
there was a lot of talk about it. I thought that if he were here, I
could persuade you . . ."

He paused, and looked more keenly at the girl.

"What is it, Klara?" he asked; "you seem ill or upset . . ."

She closed her eyes once or twice like someone just waking out of a
dream, then she passed her hands over her forehead and over her hair.
She felt completely dazed and stupid, as if she had received a stunning
blow on the head, and while Andor talked she looked at him with staring
eyes, not understanding a word that he said.

"Yes--yes, Andor?" she said vaguely. "What can I do for you?"

"Nothing much, my good Klara," he replied; "it was only about Béla
. . ."

"Yes--about Béla," she stammered; "won't . . . won't you sit down?"

"Thank you, I will for a moment."

She moved forward in order to get him a chair, but she found that she
could not stand. The moment that she relinquished the prop of the wall,
her knees gave way under her and she lurched forward against the table.
She would have fallen had not Andor caught her and guided her to a
chair, whereon she sank half fainting, with eyes closed and cheeks and
lips the colour of ashes.

Just for the moment the wild thought flew through his mind that she had
been induced to drink by one of the men, but a closer look on her wan,
pale face and into those dilated eyes of hers convinced him that the
girl was in real and acute mental distress.

He went up to the table and poured out a mug of wine, which he held to
her lips. She drank eagerly, looking up at him the while with a
strangely pathetic, eagerly appealing gaze.

When he had taken the mug from her and replaced it on the table, he drew
a chair close to her and said as kindly as he could, for he did not feel
very well-disposed toward the girl who was the cause of much unhappiness
to Elsa:

"Now, Klara, you are going to tell me what is the matter with you."

But already she had recovered herself a little, and Lakatos Andor's
somewhat dictatorial tone grated upon her sensitive ear.

"There's nothing the matter with me," she retorted, with a return of her
habitual flippancy. "What should be the matter?"

"I don't know," he said dryly; "and, of course, if you tell me that it's
a private affair of your own and none of my business, why I'll be quite
satisfied, and not ask any more questions. But if it's anything to do
with Béla . . ."

"No, of course not," she broke in impatiently. "What should Béla have to
do with my affairs? Béla has been gone from here this hour past."

"And he is not coming back?" asked Andor searchingly.

"I trust not," she replied fervently, and the young man noticed that
the staring, terror-filled look once more crept into her eyes.

"Very well, then," he said, rising, "that is all I wanted to know. I am
sorry to have disturbed you. Good-night, Klara."

"Good-night," she murmured.

He turned to go, and already his hand was on the latch of the door when
an involuntary cry, like a desperate appeal, escaped her lips.

"Andor!"

"What is it?" he said, speaking over his shoulder.

He didn't like the girl: she had been offensive and insolent to Elsa,
the cause of Elsa's tears; but just now, when he turned back in answer
to that piteous call from her, she looked so forlorn, so pathetic, so
terrified that all the kindliness and chivalry which are inherent in the
true Magyar peasant rose up in his heart to plead on her behalf.

"You were quite right just now, Andor," she murmured. "I am in
trouble--in grave, terrible trouble. . . ."

"Is there anything I can do to help you?" he asked. "No, no, don't get
up," he added hurriedly, for she had tried to rise and obviously was
still unable to stand, "just stay where you are, and I'll come and sit
near you. Is there anything I can do to help you?"

"Yes!" she whispered under her breath.

"What is it?"

"I don't know what you'll think of me."

"Never mind what I think," he said, a little impatiently; "if there's
anything I can do to help you in your trouble I'll do it, but of course
I can do nothing unless you tell me all about it."

She was trying to make up her mind to tell him, but it was desperately
difficult.

She had always been so careful of her reputation--so careful that not a
breath of real scandal should fall on her. She, of the downtrodden race,
the Jewess whom even the meanest of the peasant girls thought it her
right to despise, had been doubly careful not to give any loophole for
gossip. She flirted with all the men, of course--openly and sometimes
injudiciously, as in the case of Erös Béla on the eve of his
wedding-day; but up to now she had never given any cause for scandal,
nor anyone the right to look down on her for any other reason but that
of her race and blood, which she could not help.

It was hard, therefore, to have to own to something that distinctly
savoured of intrigue, and this to a man who she felt had no cause to be
her friend. But the situation was desperate; there was that madman
outside! God only knew of what he would be capable if he found that his
jealous suspicions had some measure of foundation! And the young
Count--ready to walk presently, without thought of coming danger, into
the very clutches of that lunatic.

That of course was unthinkable. There had been murder in Leo's pale eyes
when he fingered that awful-looking knife. The girl felt that such a
risk could not be run: even the good opinion of the entire village
became as nothing in her mind.

And of course there was the hope and chance that Andor would be
chivalrous enough to hold his tongue. The young man's keen eyes had
watched every phase of the conflict which was so distinctly reflected in
the Jewess's mobile face. He waited patiently until he saw determination
gradually asserting its sway over her hesitation. The girl interested
him, and she was evidently in great trouble. Though he had no liking for
her, he was anxious to know what had disturbed her so terribly and
genuinely intended to be of use to her. He had no doubt that the
trouble had something to do with Leopold Hirsch. Everyone knew the
latter's jealous disposition, and Andor had not been home half a day
before he had heard plenty of gossip on the subject.

"Well, Klara?" he asked quietly after awhile, when he saw that she
appeared to be more calm and more able to speak coherently. "You don't
deny that you are in trouble. . . . You have half made up your mind to
tell me. . . . Well, then, out with it. . . . What is it?"

"Only that Leopold is a swine," she blurted out roughly.

"Why? What has he done?"

"Jealous," she said; "like a madman."

"Oh?"

"And I'm at my wits' end, Andor," she moaned appealingly. "I don't know
what to do."

"Hadn't you better tell me, then?"

She threw back her head and looked him squarely in the face with a
sudden determination to end the present agonizing suspense at all costs.

"It is about young Count Feri."

"My lord?" he exclaimed--for, indeed, up to this last moment he had been
quite sure in his mind that her trouble had to do with Erös Béla and
with her impudent flirtation of this afternoon.

"Yes," she said sullenly, "he's a little sweet on me, you know--he
admires me and thinks me amusing--he likes to come here sometimes, when
he gets tired of starchy Countesses and Baronesses over at his castle.
He means no harm," she added fiercely, "and if Leo wasn't such a beast
. . ."

"He has found you out, has he?" commented Andor dryly.

"Not exactly. There was nothing to find out. But Count Feri wanted to
come and see me this evening to say 'good-bye,' as he is off to-morrow
for some weeks to shoot bears. He couldn't come till about ten o'clock,
and didn't want to be seen walking into the tap-room at that hour of the
night. There is the back door, you know," she continued, talking a
little excitedly and volubly, "which my father always keeps locked and
the key in his pocket, and Count Feri wanted me to give him the
duplicate key, so that he could slip in that way unobserved."

"Hm!" mused Andor. "What would your father have said to that?"

"Father is going to Kecskemét presently by the nine o'clock train."

"And Leopold?"

"Leopold was going with him. He was to have gone to Fiume with the
express to-morrow to meet his brother, who is coming home from America."

"Well--and . . . ?"

"Well! He has changed his mind. He is not going to Fiume. He was
watching me all the afternoon like a regular spy. People had told him
that at the banquet to-day Erös Béla had been very attentive, so one of
his jealous fits was on him."

"Not without cause, I imagine," said Andor, with a sarcastic laugh.

"Of course you would stick up for him," she retorted; "men always band
themselves together against an unfortunate girl. But Leo has behaved
like a brute. He watched me while my lord was talking to me, and caught
snatches of our conversation. Then my lord sent him out of the room to
look after his horse whilst he pressed me to give him the key of the
back door."

"I understand."

"How could I guess that Leopold would be such a swine! It seems that
when he came back he peeped into father's room and noticed at once that
the key was gone. He guessed, of course--now he has threatened to tell
father if I attempt to go out of this house. He won't let me out of his
sight, and yet I must go and give Count Feri a warning and get that key
back from him. If Leo tells father, father will half kill me, and
already Leo has threatened to strangle me if he finds me on the high
road on my way to the castle. My lord suspects nothing, of course . . ."
she added, while tears of impotence and of terror choked the words in
her throat. "He'll come here presently, and as like as not Leopold will
do for him."

She burst into a passionate fit of weeping. Andor waited quietly until
the first paroxysm of sobs had subsided, and she could hear what he
said, then he remarked quite quietly:

"As like as not, as you say."

"But I won't have him hurt," she murmured through her tears. "Leo would
kill him for sure. You don't know, Andor, what Leopold is like when the
jealous rage is in him. He is outside this house now, watching. And
there he will stand and wait and watch; and he will waylay Count Feri
when he comes, and stab him with a hideous knife which he always carries
in his pocket. Oh! It's horrible!" she moaned, "horrible! I don't know
what to do. What can I do? Andor, tell me, what can I do?"

"What would you like to do?" he asked more gently, for indeed the girl's
grief and terror were pitiable to behold.

"Run over to the castle," she replied, "and get the key back from Count
Feri, and tell him on no account to come to-night. It is only a step; I
could be back here in half an hour, and father is asleep in the next
room. I should be back before he need start for the station. But Leopold
is watching outside. He declared that he would strangle me or else tell
father if I set foot outside this house. He is a brute, isn't he?"

"Well, you see, my dear Klara, I understand that you are tokened to
Leopold now, and a man has a way of thinking that his affianced wife is
his own, and not for other men to hang round her and make a fool of
him!"

"Curse him!" she muttered savagely; "I'll never marry him after this."

"Oh, yes, you will," he retorted, with a light laugh; "you'll like him
all the better presently for these outbursts of jealousy. A woman often
gets fondest of the man she fears the most. But in the meanwhile you are
at your wits' ends, eh, my pretty Klara? You can't think of any way out
of your present difficulty, what? And to-night at ten o'clock there will
be an awful scandal and worse--murder, perhaps!--and where will you be
after that, eh, my pretty Klara? Even if your father does not break his
stick over your shoulders, you'll have anyhow to leave this village, for
the village will be too hot to hold you. And as your father does mighty
good business at Marosfalva, he will not look too kindly on the daughter
who, by her scandalous conduct, has driven him to seek a precarious
fortune elsewhere. The situation certainly is a desperate one for you,
my pretty one, what?"

"You need not tell me all that, Andor," she said sullenly. "Don't I know
it?"

"It seems to me," he continued, slowly and deliberately, "that there
never was a woman before quite so desperately in need of a friend as you
are, eh, Klara?"

"I have no friend," she murmured.

"A friend, I mean, who would go and do your errand for you over at the
castle, what?--and warn his young and noble lordship not to show his
aristocratic face in Marosfalva to-night."

"I haven't such a friend, Andor, unless you . . ."

"Well! You don't want me to go out and kill Leopold Hirsch, do you?" he
said dryly.

"Of course not."

"Or engage him in a brawl while you run round to the castle?"

"It would be no good. He'd only tell father," she said, while a shiver
ran through her body; "and they would kill me on my return."

"Exactly. What you want is, to stay here quite quietly, just as if
nothing had happened, whilst the friend of whom I spoke just now went
and got back that key which is causing so much trouble."

"Yes, yes, that's what I want, Andor," she cried eagerly; "and if you
. . ."

"Stop a bit," he broke in quietly; "I didn't say that I was that friend,
did I?"

"Then you are only tormenting me. It isn't kind when I'm in such
trouble."

"I didn't mean to torment you, Klara," he said more softly. "I will even
go so far as to say that I might be that useful friend. You understand?"

"Yes! You'll make conditions for doing that friendly act for me. I
understand well enough," she said, still speaking with fierce
sullenness. "What are your conditions?" she asked.

"Look here, Klara," he replied earnestly, "a bargain is a bargain, isn't
it? I will get you out of this trouble, and what's more, I'll hold my
tongue about it. But you leave Erös Béla alone . . . understand?"

"What do you mean?"

"Oh! You know well enough what I mean," he said, almost roughly now, for
the name of Erös Béla, which he himself had brought into this matter,
had at once conjured up in his mind the painful visions of this
afternoon--Elsa's tears, her humiliation and unhappiness--and had once
more hardened his heart against the woman who had been the cause of it
all. "You know well enough what I mean. Erös Béla is full of vanity,
your attentions to-day pleased him, and he neglected Elsa as he had no
right to do. Now I don't say for a moment that you meant any harm. It
was only your vanity that was pleasantly tickled too, but you made Elsa
unhappy, and that is what I mean when I say that a bargain is a bargain.
If I get you out of your trouble to-night, you must leave Erös Béla
severely alone in the future."

"You are a fine one to preach," she retorted, with a harsh laugh. "As if
you weren't in love with Elsa, though Elsa will be Béla's wife
to-morrow."

"My being in love with Elsa has nothing to do with the matter. Nor am I
preaching to you. You want me to do you a service and I've told you my
price. You can accept it or not as you please."

"I can't help Erös Béla running after me," came as a final sullen
protest from the girl.

"Then you will have to try and help it, that's all," he said
emphatically, "if you want me to help you."

She said nothing for a moment, whilst her dark eyes searched his own,
trying to see how much determination lay behind that stern-looking face
of his, then she murmured gently:

"And if I promise . . . what you want me to promise, Andor . . . will
you go and see Count Feri at once?"

"A promise isn't enough," he said.

"An oath, then?"

"Yes. An oath."

"And you will bring me back that abominable key, and tell Count Feri
just what has happened."

"If you will swear," he insisted.

"Yes, yes, I will swear," she cried eagerly now, for indeed a heavy load
had been lifted off her heart, and her natural buoyancy of temperament
was already reasserting its sway over her terrors and agony of mind.
"What do you want me to say?"

"Swear by Almighty God," he said earnestly, "to leave Erös Béla alone,
never to flirt with him or do anything to cause Elsa the slightest
unhappiness."

"I swear it by Almighty God," she said solemnly, "and you need not be
afraid," she added slowly; "I will not break my oath."

"No! I am not afraid that you will, for if you do . . . Well! we won't
talk about that," he continued more lightly. "I suppose there isn't much
time to be lost."

"No, no, there isn't," she urged, "and don't make straight for the main
road; go up the village first and then back through the fields; Leopold
might suspect something--one never knows."

"All right, Klara, I'll do my best. We can but pray that I shall find my
lord at home, in which case I can be back in twenty minutes. I'll pick
up a friend or even two when I return, as then we can all walk into the
tap-room together. It won't be so conspicuous as if I came in alone.
What is the time now?" he asked.

She went to the partition door, opened it and peeped into her father's
room.

"Just ten minutes to nine," she said; "father will have gone by the time
you come back."

"That'll be as well, won't it?" he concluded, as he finally turned to
go. "If you are not in the tap-room when I come back, what shall I do
with the key?"

She pointed to a small brass tray which stood on the table in among the
litter of bottles, glasses, mugs and tobacco-jars.

"Just on there," she said, "then if I come into the room later, I can
see it there at a glance; and oh! what a relief it will be!"

The colour had come back to her cheeks. Indeed, she felt marvellously
cheerful now and reassured. She knew that Andor would fulfil his share
of the bargain, and the heavy cloud of trouble and of terror would be
permanently lifted from her within the next half-hour.

In her usual, light-hearted, frivolous way she blew a kiss to Andor. But
the young man, without looking again on her, had already opened the
door, and the next moment he had gone out into the dark night on his
errand of friendship.



CHAPTER XXII

"I go where I shall be more welcome."


In the meanwhile, in the barn time had been flying along on the wings of
enjoyment. Ever since six o'clock, when vespers were well over and the
gipsies had struck up the first csárdás, merry feet had been tripping it
almost incessantly.

It is amazing what a capacity the young Hungarian peasant--man or
woman--has for footing the national dance. With intervals of singing and
of gossiping these young folk in the barn had been going on for over
three hours.

And they were not even beginning to get tired. To the Hungarian
peasants, be it remembered, the csárdás is not merely a dance, though
they enjoy the movement, of course, the exhilaration and the excitement
of the music, just as all healthy young animals would enjoy gambolling
on a meadow; there is a deeper meaning to these children of the plains
in the sweet, sad strains of their songs and in the mazes and
intricacies of their dance.

They put their whole life, their entire sentiment for country and
sweetheart, in the music and in the dance, and the music and the dance
give outward expression to their feelings, speak in the language of
poetry which they feel well enough, but which their untutored tongue
cannot frame.

A Hungarian peasant in sorrow or distress will probably, like his
Western prototype, seek to drown his grief in drink; far be it from his
chronicler's mind to suggest that his sentiments are more elevated than
those of the peasantry of other nations, or his morality more sound. He
will get drunk, too, like men of other nations, but he will do it to the
accompaniment of music. The gipsy band must be there, when he is in
trouble or in joy--one or two fiddles, perhaps a clarionet, always a
czimbalom--just these few instruments to play his favourite songs. They
don't ease his sorrow, but they help to soothe it by bringing tears to
his eyes and softening the bitterness of his grief.

And in joy he will invariably dance; when he is in love he will dance,
for the csárdás helps him to explain to the girl whom he loves exactly
what he feels for her. And she understands. One csárdás will reveal to a
Hungarian village maid the state of her lover's heart far more clearly
than do all the whisperings behind hedges in more civilized lands.

It was in the csárdás five years ago that Elsa had learned from Andor
how much he loved her; it was during the mazes of the dance that she was
able to overcome her shyness and tell him mutely that she loved him in
return.

And now it was in the csárdás that she was bidding farewell to-day to
her girlhood and to the companions of her youth; to Jenö and Móritz, who
had loved her ardently and hopelessly these past two years, and who must
henceforth become to her mere friends. It was in the turns and the
twirls, with the wild music marking step, that she conveyed all that
there was in her simple heart of regret for the past and cheerful
anticipation for the future.

Elsa was a perfect dancer; it was a joy to have her for a partner, and
she was indefatigable this afternoon. It seemed as if living fire was in
her blood, her cheeks glowed, her eyes shone like dark-blue stars; she
gave herself neither rest nor respite. Determined to enjoy every minute
of the day, she had forcibly put behind her the sorrowful incidents of
the afternoon. She would not remember and she would not think.

Andor was not here, and as the spirit of music and of dancing crept more
and more into her brain, she almost got to the stage of believing that
his appearance to-day had only been a dream. Nor would she look to see
if Erös Béla were here.

She knew that he had gone off soon after dancing began. He had slipped
away quietly, and at first no one had noticed his absence. He had always
professed a lofty contempt for gipsy music and for the csárdás, a
contempt which has of late come into fashion in Hungary among the upper
classes, and has unfortunately been aped by those whose so-called
education has only succeeded in obliterating the fine national spirit of
the past without having the power to graft more modern Western culture
into this Oriental race.

Erös Béla belonged to this same supercilious set, and had made many
enemies by his sarcastic denunciations of things that were almost
thought sacred in Marosfalva. It was therefore quite an understood thing
that the moment a csárdás was struck up, Erös Béla at once went to seek
amusement elsewhere.

Of course to-day was a very different occasion to the more usual village
entertainments. To-day he should have thought of nothing but his
fiancée's pleasure. She was over-fond of dancing, and looked a picture
when she danced. It was clearly a bridegroom's duty, under these
circumstances, to stand by and watch his fiancée with all the admiration
that should be filling his heart.

After the wedding, if he disapproved of the csárdás, why of course he
could forbid his wife to dance it, and there would be an end of the
matter. To-day he was still the groom, the servant of his
fiancée--to-morrow only would he become her master.

But everyone was so intent upon enjoyment that a long time went by
before gossip occupied itself exclusively with Erös Béla's absence from
his pre-nuptial feast. When once it began it raged with unusual
bitterness. The scandal during the banquet was being repeated now. Béla
was obviously sitting in the tap-room of the inn, flirting with the
Jewess, when he should have been in attendance on his bride.

Elsa could not help but hear the comments that were being made by all
the mothers and fathers and older people who were not dancing, and who,
therefore, had plenty of leisure for talk. All the proprieties were
being outraged--so it was declared--and Elsa, who might have married so
well at one time, was indeed now an object of pity.

She hated to hear all this talk, and felt hideously ashamed that people
should be pitying her. Vainly did she try to get some measure of comfort
from her mother. Kapus Irma, irritated by the looks of commiseration
which were being levelled at her daughter, dubbed the latter a fool for
not having the sense to know how to keep her bridegroom by her side.

It was past eight o'clock before Béla put in an appearance at all.

A csárdás was in full swing. The compact group of dancers was crowded
round the musicians' platform, for the csárdás can only be properly
danced under the very bow--as it were--of the gipsy leader. The barn
looked gaily lighted up with oil-lamps swinging down from the rafters
above, and it had been most splendidly decorated for the occasion with
festoons of paper flowers and tri-colour flags. Petticoats and ribbons
were flying, little feet in red leather boots were kicking up clouds of
dust.

There was no moon to-night, the sky was heavy with clouds, so the
village street had been very dark. Erös Béla blinked as he entered the
barn, so dazzling did the picture present itself to his gaze.

And there was such an atmosphere of merriment and of animation about the
place that instinctively Béla's thoughts flew back to the dismal and
dingy little tap-room whence he had just come, with a few drunken
fellows sprawling in corners and Leopold Hirsch's ugly face leering out
of the shadows.

Here everyone was gay and good-tempered. The gipsies scraped their
fiddles till one would have thought their arms would break, the young
people danced, the men shouted and sang. It was a pandemonium of
giddiness and music and laughter.

And Béla, as he blinked and looked upon the scene, remembered that he
had paid for it all. He had paid for the hire of the barn, the music and
the lighting; he had paid for the lavish supper which would be served
presently. And as he had had more silvorium to drink in the tap-room
than was altogether good for the clearness of his brain, he fell to
thinking that he ought now to be received and welcomed with all the
deference which his lavishness deserved. He thought that the young
people should have left off dancing when he appeared, and should have
greeted him, as they would undoubtedly have greeted my lord the Count,
had the latter deigned to come.

And what, after all, was my lord on such an occasion in comparison with
the donor of the feast?

Even Elsa--though she must, of course, have seen him--did not stop in
her senseless gyrations. She was dancing with Barna Móritz--the mayor's
youngest son and a splendid dancer--and the two young people went on
twirling and twisting and flirting and laughing just as if he--the real
host--had not been there.

Enraged at all this indifference, this want of recognition of his
dignity, he elbowed his way through the dense group of spectators which
formed a phalanx round the dancers. The wide and voluminous petticoats
of the women formed a veritable hedge through which he had to scramble
and to push. As the people recognized him they gave him pleasant
greetings, for the Hungarian peasant is by nature kindly and something
of an opportunist; there was no occasion to quarrel openly with Erös
Béla, who was rich and influential.

But he paid no heed either to the greetings or to the whispered comments
that followed in their wake. He just felt that he was the master of this
place, and he meant everyone else to know and acknowledge this fact. So
he strode up to the czigány and ordered them peremptorily to draw this
interminable csárdás to an end; it had lasted quite long enough, he
said, and the girls looked a sight with their crimson, perspiring faces;
he was not going to have such vulgar goings-on at any of his wedding
feasts.

The gipsy leader never thought of disobeying, of course; it was the
_tekintetes úr_ (honoured gentleman) who was paying them for their work,
and they had to do as they were told.

Despite loud protests from the dancers, the csárdás was brought to a
lovely and whirling close. Panting, hot and beaming, the dancers now
mingled with the rest of the throng, and a pandemonium of laughter and
chatter soon filled the barn from end to end.

Elsa, in accordance with the custom which holds sway even at village
dances, was even now turning to walk away with her partner, whose duty
it was to conduct her to her mother's side. She felt wrathful with
Béla--as wrathful, at least, as so gentle a creature could be. She was
ashamed of his behaviour, ashamed for herself as well as for him, and
she didn't want to speak with him just now.

But he, still feeling dictatorial and despotic, had not yet finished
asserting his authority. He called to her loudly and peremptorily:

"Elsa! I want a word with you."

"I'll come directly, Béla," she replied, speaking over her shoulder. "I
want to speak to mother for a minute."

"You can speak to her later," he rejoined roughly. "I want a word with
you now."

And without more ado he pushed his way up close to Elsa's side, elbowing
Barna Móritz with scant ceremony. An angry word rose to the younger
man's lips, and a sudden quarrel was only averted by a pleading look
from Elsa's blue eyes. It would have been very unseemly, of course, to
quarrel with one's host on such an occasion. Móritz, swallowing his
wrath, withdrew without a word, even though he cursed Béla for a brute
under his breath.

Béla took Elsa's arm and led her aside out of the crowd.

"You know," he said roughly, "how I hate you to mix with that rowdy lot
like you do; and you know that I look on the csárdás as indecent and
vulgar. Why do you do it?"

"The rowdy lot, as you call them, Béla," she replied firmly, "are my
friends, and the csárdás is a dance which all true Magyars dance from
childhood."

"I don't choose to allow my wife to dance it," he retorted.

"And after to-morrow I will obey you, Béla. To-day I asked my mother if
I might dance. And she said yes."

"Your mother's a fool," he muttered.

"And remember that to-night I take leave of my girlhood," she said
gently, determined not to quarrel. "My friends like to monopolize me
. . . it's only natural."

"Well! They are not my friends, anyway, and I'd rather you did not dance
another csárdás to-night."

"I am sorry, Béla," she said quietly, "but I have promised Fehér Károly
and also Jenö. They would be disappointed if I broke my promise."

"Then they'll have to be disappointed, that's all."

She made no reply, but looking at her face, which he saw in profile, he
could not fail to note that her lips were tightly set and that there was
an unwonted look of determination round her mouth. He drew in his
breath, for he was quite ready for a second conflict of will to-day,
nor, this time, was the issue for a moment in doubt in his mind. Women
were made to obey--their parents first and then their husbands. In this
case Béla knew well enough that his authority was fully backed by that
of Elsa's mother--the invalid father, of course, didn't count, but Kapus
Irma wanted that house on the Kender Road, she wanted the servant and
the oxen, the chickens and the pigs, she wanted all the ease and the
luxury which her rich son-in-law would give her.

No! There was no fear that Elsa would break her tokened word. In this
semi-Oriental land, where semi-Oriental thought prevails, girls do not
do that sort of thing--if they do, it is to their own hurt, and Elsa was
not of the stuff of which rebellious or perjured women are made.

Therefore Béla now had neither fear nor compunction in asserting that
authority which would be his to the full to-morrow. He felt that there
was a vein of rebellion in Elsa's character, and this he meant to drain
and to staunch till it had withered to nothingness. It would never do
for him--of all men--to have a rebellious or argumentative wife.

"Well, then, that's settled," he said, with absolute finality, "you can
go and talk to your precious friends as much as you like, so long as you
behave yourself as a tokened bride should, but I will not have you dance
that abominable csárdás again to-night."

"And have you behaved to-day, Béla," she retorted quite gently, "as a
tokened bridegroom should?"

"That's nothing to do with it," he replied, with a harsh laugh. "I am a
man, and you are a girl, and even the most ignorant Hungarian peasant
will tell you that there is a vast difference there. But I am not going
to argue about it with you, my dear. I merely forbid you to dance a
dance which I consider indecent. That's all."

"And I am sorry, Béla," she said, speaking at least as firmly as he did,
"but I have given my promise, and even you would not wish me to break my
word."

"You mean to disobey me, then?" he asked.

"Certainly not after to-morrow. To-day I have my mother's permission,
and I am going to dance one csárdás now with Fehér Károly and one after
supper again with Jenö."

They had both unconsciously raised their voices during these last few
words, and thus aroused the attention of some of the folk, who had stood
by to listen. Of course, everyone knew of Béla's aversion to the
csárdás, and curiosity prompted gaffers and gossips to try and hear what
would be the end of this argument between the pretty bride--who
certainly looked rather wilful and obstinate now--and her future lord
and master.

"Well said, little Elsa!" came now in ringing accents from the foremost
group in the little crowd; "we must see you dance the csárdás once or
twice more before that ogre has the authority to shut you up in his
castle."

"Moreover, your promise has been made to me," asserted Fehér Károly
lustily, "and I certainly shall not release you from it."

"Nor I," added Jenö.

"Don't you listen to Béla, my little Elsa," said one of the older women;
"you are still a free girl to-day. You just do as you like--to-morrow
will be time enough to do as he tells you."

But this opinion the married men present were not prepared to endorse,
and one or two minor arguments and lectures ensued anent a woman's duty
of obedience.

Béla had said nothing while these chaffing remarks were being passed
over his head; and now that public attention was momentarily diverted
from him, he took Elsa's hand and passed it under his arm.

"You had better go to your mother now, hadn't you?" he said, with what
seemed like perfect calm. "You said just now that you wished to speak to
her."

Elsa allowed him to lead her away. She tried vainly to guess what was
going on in his mind. She knew, of course, that he must be very angry.
Erös Béla beaten in an argument was at no time a very pleasant customer,
and now he surely was raging inwardly, for he had set his heart on
exerting his authority over this matter of the csárdás and had signally
failed.

But she could not see how he felt, for he kept his face averted from her
inquiring gaze.

Kapus Irma greeted her future son-in-law with obvious acerbity.

"I hear you have been teasing Elsa again," she said crossly. "Why can't
you let her enjoy herself just for to-night, without interfering with
her?"

"Oh! I am not going to interfere with her," he replied, with a sneer.
"You have given her such perfect lessons of disobedience and obstinacy
that it will take me all my time in the future to drill her into proper
wifely shape. But to-night I am not going to interfere with her. She has
told me plainly that she means to do just as she likes and that you have
given her leave to defy me. Public opinion, it seems, is all in her
favour too. So I have just brought your dutiful daughter back to you,
and now I am free to make myself scarce."

"To make yourself scarce?" exclaimed Irma. "What do you mean?"

"Just what I say. I am not going to stay here, where I am jeered at by a
lot of loutish, common peasants, who seem to have forgotten that I am
paying for their enjoyment and for all the food and drink which they
will consume presently. However, that's neither here nor there. Everyone
seems to look upon this entertainment as Elsa's feast, and upon Elsa as
the hostess and the queen. I am so obviously in the way and of no
consequence. I go where I shall be more welcome."

He had dropped Elsa's arm and was turning to go, but Irma had caught
hold of his coat.

"Where are you going?" she gasped.

"That's nothing to do with you, is it, Irma néni?" he replied dryly.

"Indeed it is," she retorted; "why, you can't go away like that--not
before supper--you can't for Elsa's sake--what would everybody say?"

"I don't care one brass fillér what anybody says, Irma néni, and you
know it. As for Elsa, why should I consider her? She has plenty of
friends to stand by her, it seems, in her disobedience to my wishes. She
has openly defied me, and made me look a fool. I am not going to stand
that, so I go elsewhere--or I might do or say something which I might be
sorry for later on--see?"

He tried to speak quietly and not to raise his voice, but it was also
obvious that self-control was costing him a mightily vigorous effort,
for the veins in his temples were standing up like cords, and his one
eye literally shone with a sinister and almost cruel glow.

Kapus Irma turned to her daughter.

"Elsa," she said fretfully, "don't be such a goose. I won't have you
quarrelling with Béla like this, just before your wedding. Just you kiss
him now, and tell him you didn't mean to vex him. We can't have
everybody gossiping about this affair! My goodness! As if a csárdás or
two mattered." . . .

But here Béla's harsh laugh broke in on her mutterings.

"Don't waste your breath, Irma néni," he said roughly. "Even if Elsa
were to come and beg my pardon now I would not remain here. I don't care
for such tardy, perfunctory obedience, and this she will learn by and
by. For to-night, if you and she feel ashamed and uncomfortable, well!
so much the better. Village gossip doesn't affect me in the least. I do
as I like, and let all the chattering women go to h----l. Good-night,
Irma néni--good-night, Elsa! I hope you will be in a better frame of
mind to-morrow."

And before Kapus Irma could detain him or utter another protest, he was
gone, and she turned savagely on her daughter.

"Elsa!" she said, "you are never going to let us all be shamed like
this? Run after him at once, and bring him back!"

"He wouldn't come back, mother, if I begged him ever so . . ." said Elsa
drearily; "and besides--where should I find him?"

"On his way to Ignácz Goldstein's, of course. If you run you can easily
overtake him."

"I can't, mother," protested Elsa; "how can I?"

"You'll just do as I tell you, my girl!" said Irma firmly, and with a
snap of her lean jaws. "By the Holy Virgin, child! Are you going to
disobey your mother now? God will punish you, you know, if you go on
like that. Go at once as I tell you. Run out by this door here. No one
will see you, you will overtake Béla before he is half-way down the
street, and then you must just bring him back. That's all."

Long habits of obedience were so ingrained in the girl that at this
moment--though she felt quite sure that all her attempts would be in
vain, and though she felt bitterly humiliated at having to make such
attempts--she never thought of openly defying her mother. Indeed, she
quite believed that God would punish her if she rebelled so constantly,
for this had been drilled into her since her earliest childhood's days.

Fortunately for the moment everyone's attention was concentrated on a
table of liquid refreshments in a remote corner of the barn, and Elsa
and her mother were practically isolated here, and the last little scene
had gone by unobserved.

Irma picked a shawl from off her own shoulders and put it round her
daughter; then she gave her a final significant push. Elsa, with her
tear-dimmed eyes, could scarcely find the little side door which was
fashioned in the wooden wall itself, and gave direct access into the
street.

God would punish her if she defied her mother; well! God's wrath must be
harder to bear than the bitter humiliation to which her mother had so
airily condemned her. To beg Béla's forgiveness, to assure him of her
obedience, to stand shamed before him and before all her friends, surely
God couldn't want her to do all that?

But already she had crossed the threshold and was out in the dark,
silent street. She ran on mechanically in the direction of the inn; her
mother's commands seemed to be moving her along, for certainly her own
will had nothing to do with it. Her cheeks were aflame, and her eyes
burned with all the tears which she would not shed, but she herself felt
cold and numb, as she ran on blindly, stupidly, to where she had just
seen a tiny speck of light.

The night was dark but exquisitely calm--perfectly still, yet full of
those mysterious whisperings which come from the bosom of the plain, the
flutter of birds' wings, snug in their night's lodgings amongst the
drooping branches of pollarded willows, the quiver of the plumed heads
of maize, touched by some fairy garment as it brushed by, the call of
the cricket from among the tall sunflowers and the quiver of the
glow-worm on the huge pumpkin leaves.

Elsa knew all these soft whisperings; she was a child of this immense
and majestic plain, and all the furtive little beasts that dwelt within
its maze were bosom friends of hers.

At other times, when her mind and heart had been at peace, she loved
these dark, calm nights, when heavy clouds hid the light of the moon and
sounds grew louder and more distinct as the darkness grew more tense;
neither fluttering of unseen wings nor quiver of stealthy footsteps had
the power to startle her; they were all her friends, these tiny dwellers
of the plain, these midnight marauders of whom townsfolk are always so
afraid.

At first, when she perceived the tiny speck of light on ahead, she
thought that it must be a glow-worm settled on the leaves of the dahlias
outside the school-house, for glow-worms had been over-abundant this
late summer, but soon she saw that the burning speck was moving along,
on ahead in the same direction as she herself was going--on the way to
Ignácz Goldstein's.

Béla had lighted a cigar when he left the barn; nursing his resentment,
he had walked along rapidly toward the inn, his head whirling with
thoughts of the many things which he meant to do in order to be revenged
on Elsa this night.

Of course a long visit to Klara fully entered into those schemes, and
now he paused just at the foot of the verandah steps breathing in the
soft evening air with fully dilated nostrils and lungs, so that his
nerves might regain some semblance of that outward calm which his
dignity demanded.

And thus, standing still, he heard through the silence the patter of
small, high-heeled boots upon the hard road. He guessed at once that
Elsa had been sent along by her mother to bring him back, and a
comforting glow of inward satisfaction went right through his veins as,
after a slight moment of hesitation, he made up his mind to await Elsa's
coming here, to listen to her apologies, to read her the lecture which
she fully deserved, but nevertheless to continue the plan of conduct
which he had mapped out for himself.



CHAPTER XXIII

"On the eve of one's wedding day too."


He could not see Elsa till she was quite close to him, and even then he
could only vaguely distinguish the quaint contour of her wide-sleeved
shift and of her voluminous petticoats.

But his cigar had gone out, and when Elsa stood quite close to him, and
softly murmured his name, he struck a match very deliberately, and held
it to the cigar so that it lighted up his face for a few seconds. He
wanted her to see how indifferent was the expression in his eye, and
that there was not the slightest trace of a welcoming smile lurking
round his lips.

Therefore he held the lighted match close to his face much longer than
was necessary; he only dropped it when it began to scorch his fingers.
Then he blew a big cloud of smoke out of his cigar straight into her
face, and only after that did he say, speaking very roughly:

"What do you want?"

"Mother sent me, Béla," she said timidly, as she placed a trembling
little hand on his coat-sleeve. "I wouldn't have come, only she ordered
me, and I couldn't disobey her, so I . . ."

"Couldn't disobey your mother, eh?" he sneered; "you couldn't defy her
as you did me, what?"

"I didn't mean to defy you, Béla," she said, striving with all her might
to keep back the rebellious words which surged out of her overburdened
heart to her quivering lips. "I couldn't be unkind to Jenö and Károly,
and all my old friends, just this last evening, when I am still a girl
amongst them."

"You preferred being obstinate and wilful toward me, I suppose?"

"Don't let us quarrel, Béla," she pleaded.

"I am not quarrelling," he retorted. "I came to the barn just now
looking forward to the pleasure of having you to myself for a little
bit. There was a lot I wanted to say to you--just quietly, in a corner
by our two selves. And how did I find you? Hot and panting, after an
hour's gyrations, hardly able to stand, and certainly not able to speak;
and at my simple request that you should give up a dance of which I
whole-heartedly disapprove, you turned on me with impudence and
obstinacy. I suppose you felt yourself backed up by your former
sweetheart, and thought you could just treat me like the dirt under your
feet."

He certainly had proved himself a good advocate in his own cause. The
case thus put succinctly and clearly before her appeared very black to
Elsa against herself. Ever ready for self-deprecation, she began to
think that indeed she had behaved in a very ugly, unwomanly and
aggressive manner, and her meekness cost her no effort now when she said
gently:

"I am sorry, Béla! I seem to have been all queer the whole of to-day. It
is a very upsetting time for any girl, you must remember. But Pater
Bonifácius said that if any sin lay on my conscience since my last
confession, I could always find him in church at seven o'clock to-morrow
morning, before our wedding Mass, so as to be quite clear of sin before
Holy Communion."

"That's all right, then," he said, with a hard laugh. "You had better
find him in church to-morrow morning, and tell him that you have been
wilful and perverse and disobedient. He'll give you absolution, no
doubt. So now you'd better go back to your dancing. Your many friends
will be pining for you."

"Won't you . . . won't you come back with me, Béla?" she pleaded.

"No. I won't. I have told your mother plainly enough that I wasn't
coming back. So why she should have sent you snivelling after me, I
can't think."

"I think that even if mother hadn't sent me I should have come
ultimately. I am not quite sure, but I think I should have come. I know
that I have done wrong, but we are all of us obstinate and mistaken at
times, aren't we, Béla? It is rather hard to be so severely punished,"
she added, with a wistful little sigh, "on the eve of one's wedding day
too, which should be one of the happiest days in a girl's life."

"Severely punished?" he sneered. "Bah! As if you wanted me over there.
You've got all your precious friends."

"But I do want you, Béla. All the time that you were not in the barn
this afternoon I . . . I felt lonesome."

"Then why didn't you send for your old sweetheart? He would have cheered
you up."

"Don't say that, Béla," she said earnestly, and once more her little
hand grasped his coat-sleeve; "you don't know how it hurts. I don't want
to think of Andor. I only want to think of you, and if you would try and
be a little patient, I am sure that we would understand one another
better very soon."

"I hope so, my dear," he rejoined dryly, "for your sake--as I am not a
patient man; let me tell you that. Come, give me a kiss and run back to
your mother. I can't bear to have a woman snivelling near me like that."

He drew her toward him with that rough, perfunctory gesture which
betokened the master rather than the lover. Then with one hand he raised
her chin up and brought her face quite close to his. Even then he could
not see her clearly because of the heavy clouds in the sky. But the air
seemed suddenly to have become absolutely still, not a breath of wind
stirred the leaves of the acacia trees, and all those soft sighings and
mysterious whisperings which make the plain always appear so full of
life were for the moment hushed. Only from far away came the murmur of
the sluggish waters of the Maros, and from its shores the call of a
heron to its mate. Elsa made vigorous efforts to swallow her tears. The
exquisite quietude of Nature, that call of the heron, the scent of dying
flowers which lingered in the autumn air, made her feel more strongly
than she had ever felt before how beautiful life might have been.

Pater Bonifácius' words rang in her ears: "You are going to be happy in
God's way, my child, which may not be your way, but must be an
infinitely better one."

Well! For the moment Elsa didn't see how this was going to be done; she
did not see how she could ever be happy beside this tyrannical, arrogant
man who would be, and meant to be, her master rather than her mate.

Even now the searching look wherewith his one eye, with its sinister
expression, tried to read her very soul had in it more of pride of
possession, more of the appraiser of goods than the ardour of a
bridegroom. Béla cursed the darkness which prevented his reading now
every line of that pure young face which was held up to his; he longed
with all the passionate masterfulness of his temperament to know
exactly how much awe, how much deference, how much regard she felt for
him. Of love he did not think, nor did he care if it never came; but
this beautiful prize which had been coveted by so many was his at last,
and he meant to mould it and wield it in accordance with his pleasure.

But in spite of his callousness and his selfishness, the intense
womanliness of the girl stirred the softer emotions of his heart; there
was so much freshness in her, so much beauty and so much girlishness
that just for one brief second a wave, almost of tenderness, swept over
his senses.

He kissed the pure young lips and drank in greedily their exquisite
sweetness, then he said somewhat less harshly:

"You are too pretty, my dove, to put on those modern airs of emancipated
womanhood. If you only knew how much better you please me like this,
than when you try to argue with me, you would always use your power over
me, you little goose."

She made no reply, for, despite the warm woollen shawl round her
shoulders, she had suddenly felt cold, and a curious shiver had gone
right through her body, even whilst her future lord did kiss her. But no
doubt it was because just then an owl had hooted in the poplar trees far
away.

"You are coming back then, Béla?" she asked, after a few seconds of
silence and with enforced cheerfulness.

"I'll think about it," he said condescendingly.

"But . . ."

"There, now, don't begin again," he broke in impatiently. "Haven't I
said that I'll think about it? You run back to your mother now. I may
come later--or I may not. But if you bother me much more I certainly
won't. If I come, I come of my own free will; there's no woman living
who has ever persuaded me to do anything against my will."

And without vouchsafing her another word or look, without deigning to
see her safely on her way back to the barn, he turned leisurely on his
heel, and mounting the steps of the verandah before him, he presently
pushed open the tap-room door and disappeared within.



CHAPTER XXIV

"If you loved me."


Elsa stood for a moment quite still there in the dark, with the silence
of the night and all its sweet sounds encompassing her, and the scent of
withered flowers and slowly-dying leaves mounting to her quivering
nostrils.

What did it all mean? What did life mean? And what was the meaning of
God? She, the ignorant, unsophisticated peasant girl, knew nothing save
what Pater Bonifácius had taught her, and that was little enough--though
the little was hard enough to learn.

Resignation to God's will; obedience to parents first and to husband
afterwards; renunciation of all that made the days appear like a
continual holiday and filled the nights with exquisite dreams!

But if life only meant that, only meant duty and obedience and
resignation, then why had God made such a beautiful world, why had He
made the sky and the birds and the flowers, the nodding plumes of maize
and the tiny, fleecy clouds which people the firmament at sunset?

Was it worth while to deck this world in such array if the eyes of men
were always to be filled with tears, and their backs bent to their
ever-recurring tasks?

A heavy sigh escaped from the girl's overburdened heart: the riddle of
the universe was too hard an one for her simple mind to solve. Perhaps
it was best after all not to think of these things which she was too
ignorant to understand. She looked at the door of the tavern through
which Béla had gone. He had left it wide open, and she caught a glimpse
of him now as he sat at one of the tables, and leaning his elbow on it,
rested his chin in his hand.

Then, with another little sigh, she was just turning to go when the
sound of her name spoken in a whisper and quite close to her sent her
pulses quivering and made her heart beat furiously.

"Elsa! Wait a moment!"

"Is that you, Andor?" she whispered.

"Yes. I came up just now and heard your voice and Béla's. I waited on
the off-chance of getting a word with you."

"I mustn't stop, Andor. Mother will be wondering."

"No, she won't," he retorted with undisguised bitterness. "The mother
who sent you on this abominable and humiliating errand won't worry much
after you."

"No one seems to worry much about me, do they, Andor?" she said, a
little wistfully.

He drew a little closer to her, so close that he could feel her shoulder
under the shawl quivering against his arm. Her many petticoats brushed
about his shins, and he could hear her quick, warm breath as it came and
went. He bent his head quite close to her, as he had done that day, five
years ago, in the mazes of the csárdás, and now--as then--his lips
almost touched her soft young neck.

"Then why should you worry about them, Elsa?" he whispered slowly in her
ear. "Why shouldn't you let them all be?"

"Let them all be?" she said. "But everyone will be wondering if I don't
go back--at least for supper."

"I don't mean about the dance and the supper, Elsa," he continued, still
speaking in a whisper and striving to subdue the hoarseness in his voice
which was engendered by the passion which burned in his veins, "I don't
only mean to-night. I mean . . . for good." . . .

"For good?" she repeated slowly.

"Let me take you away, Elsa," he entreated, "away from here. Leave all
these rough, indifferent and selfish folk. Come out with me to
Australia, and let all these people be."

At first, of course, she didn't understand him; but gradually his
meaning became clear and she gave one long, horrified gasp.

"Andor! How can you?"

"It has been borne upon me, Elsa, these hours past, that I am a coward
and a villain to let you go on with this miserable life. Nay! it's worse
than that, for your future life with that bully, that brute, will be far
more wretched than you have any idea now. He doesn't care for you,
Elsa--not really--not as I care for you, not as you--the sweetest,
gentlest, purest woman in the world--should be cared for and cherished.
He doesn't love you, Elsa, he doesn't even really want you--not as I
want you--I, who would give my life, every drop of my blood, to have you
for myself alone!"

Gradually, as he spoke, his arms had clasped round her, his passionate
whispers came in short gasps to her ear. Gently now she disengaged
herself.

"But I am tokened to Béla, Andor," she said gently. "To-morrow is my
wedding day. I have made my confession. Pater Bonifácius has prepared me
for Holy Communion. My word is pledged to Béla."

"He doesn't love you, Elsa, and he is not your husband yet. Your pledged
word does not bind you before God. To-day you are still free. You are
free until you have sworn before the altar of God. Elsa! Béla doesn't
want you, he doesn't love you. And I love you and want you with my
whole heart and soul."

"Don't speak like that, Andor, don't," she almost pleaded. "You must
know how wrong it is for you to speak and for me to listen."

"But I must speak, Elsa," he urged, "and you have got to listen. We
could get away now, Elsa, to-night, by the nine-twenty train. Over at
the barn no one would know that you had gone until it got too late to
run after you. Never mind about your clothes. I have plenty of money in
my pocket, and to-morrow when we get to Budapesth we can get what you
want. By the next day we should be in Fiume, and then we would embark on
the first ship that is outward bound. I know just how to manage, Elsa.
You would have nothing to do, nothing to think of, but just give
yourself over into my keeping. You are a free woman, Elsa, bound to no
one, and the first opportunity we had we would get married. Out there in
Australia I can get plenty of work and good pay: we shouldn't be rich,
Elsa--not as rich as you would be if you married Erös Béla, but by God I
swear that we would be happy, for every minute of my life would be
devoted to your happiness."

All the while that he spoke she had made persistent efforts to disengage
herself from his grasp. She felt that she must get away from him, away
from his insinuating voice, from the ardour of those whispered words
which seemed to burn into her very soul. The very night seemed to be in
league with him, the darkness and the silence and all those soft sounds
of gently-murmuring river and calls of birds and beasts, and the
fragrance of dying flowers which numbed the senses and obliterated the
thought of God, of duty and of parents.

"No, no, Andor," she murmured feebly, "you have no right to speak like
that. I am tokened to Béla. I have sworn that I would be his wife. My
hand was in his and the Pater blessed us; and it was after Holy
Communion and when Christ Himself was in my heart! And there is mother
too and father, the house which Béla promised them, the oxen and the
pigs, a maid to look after father. Mother would curse me if I cheated
her of all that now."

"When we are settled in Australia," he pleaded earnestly, "we will write
to your parents and send them money to come out and join us."

"Father is paralysed. How could he come? And mother would curse me. And
a mother's curse, Andor, is registered by God."

"Elsa, if you loved me you would leave father and mother and come with
me."

"Then perhaps I do not love you, Andor," she said slowly, "for I could
not bear my mother's curse, I could not break the pledge which I swore
after Holy Communion! I could not commit so great a sin, Andor, not even
for your sake, for if I did remorse would break my heart, and all your
love for me would not compensate me for the sin."

And before he could say another word, before his arms could once more
close round her or his trembling hands clutch at her fluttering
petticoats, she was gone--vanished out of his grasp and into the
darkness, and only the patter of her little feet broke the silence of
the night.



CHAPTER XXV

"In any case Elsa is not for you."


Andor with a sigh of heartbroken disappointment now turned to go into
the inn. He had the key in his hand which my lord the young count had
given him with a careless laugh and a condescending nod of
acknowledgment for the service thus rendered to him and to Klara.

The door of the tap-room was still wide open, a narrow wedge-shaped
light filtrated through on to the beams and floor of the verandah,
making the surrounding blackness seem yet more impenetrable.

Andor entered the tap-room and walked straight up to the centre table,
and he placed the key upon the small tray which Klara had pointed out to
him. Then he turned and looked around him: Klara was not there, and the
room was quite deserted. Apparently the sleepers of awhile ago had been
roused from their slumbers and had departed one by one. For a moment
Andor paused, wondering if he should tell Klara that he had been
successful in his errand. He could hear the murmur of the girl's voice
in the next room talking to her father.

No! On the whole he preferred not to meet her again: he didn't like the
woman, and still felt very wrathful against her for the impudent part
she had played at the feast this afternoon.

He had just made up his mind to go back to the presbytery where the kind
Pater had willingly given him a bed, when Erös Béla's broad, squat
figure appeared in the open doorway. He had a lighted cigar between his
teeth and his hands were buried in the pockets of his trousers; he held
his head on one side and his single eye leered across the room at the
other man.

When he encountered Andor's quick, savage glance he gave a loud, harsh
laugh.

"She gave it you straight enough, didn't she?" he said as he swaggered
into the room.

"You were listening?" asked Andor curtly.

"Yes. I was," replied Béla. "I was in here and I heard your voice, so I
stole out on to the verandah. You were not ten paces away; I could hear
every word you said."

"Well?"

"Well what?" sneered the other.

"What conclusion did you arrive at?"

"What conclusion?" retorted Béla, with a laugh. "Why, my good man, I
came to the conclusion that in spite of all your fine talk about God and
so on, and all your fine airs of a gentleman from Australia, you are
nothing but a low-down cur who comes sneaking round trying to steal a
fellow's sweetheart from him."

"I suppose you are right there, Béla," said Andor, with a quick,
impatient sigh and with quite unwonted meekness. "I suppose I am, as you
say, nothing but a low-down cur."

"Yes, my friend, that's just it," assented the other dryly; "but she's
let you know pretty straight, hasn't she? that she wouldn't listen to
your talk. Elsa will stick by me, and by her promise to me, you may bet
your shirt on that. She is too shrewd to think of exchanging the
security of to-day for any of your vague promises. She is afraid of her
mother and of me and of God's curses and so on, and she does not care
enough about you to offend the lot of us, and that's about how it
stands."

"You are right there, Béla, that is about how it stands."

"And so, my fine gentleman," concluded Béla, with a sneer, "you cannot
get rid of me unless you are ready to cut my throat and to hang for it
afterwards. In any case, you see, Elsa is not for you."

Andor said nothing for the moment. It seemed as if vaguely in his mind
some strong purpose had already taken birth and was struggling to
subjugate his will. His bronzed face marked clearly the workings of his
thoughts: at first there had been a dulled, sombre look in his dark,
deep-set eyes; then gradually a flame seemed to flicker in them, feebly
at first, then dying down for awhile, then rising again more triumphant,
more glowing than before, even as the firm lines around the
tightly-closed lips became more set and more expressive of a strong
resolve.

Ignácz Goldstein's querulous voice was heard in the other room, giving
fussy directions to his daughter about the collecting and packing up of
his things. Anon, he opened the door and peered out into the tap-room:
he had heard the confused murmur of footsteps and of voices, and
possible customers must not be neglected even at an anxious moment of
departure.

Seeing Béla and Andor there, he asked if anything was wanted.

"No, no," said Béla impatiently, "nothing more to-night. Andor and I are
going directly."

The narrow hatchet-face once more disappeared behind the door. Klara's
voice was heard to ask:

"Who is in the tap-room, father?"

"Andor and Béla," replied the old man, "but never you mind about the
tap-room. Just see that you don't forget my red handkerchief, and my fur
cap for the journey, and my bottle of . . ."

His mumblings became inaudible, and after awhile Béla reiterated, with
an airy laugh:

"No, my friend! Elsa is not for you."

Then it was that Andor's confused thoughts shaped themselves into a
resolve.

"Not unless you will give her up, Béla," he said slowly: "you yourself,
I mean--now--at this eleventh hour."

"I?" queried the other harshly--not understanding. "Give her up?"

"Yes. Tell her that you have thought the whole matter over; that you
have realized that nothing but unhappiness can come from your union
together. She would feel a little humiliated at first, perhaps, but she
would come to me, if you would let her go. I can deal with Irma néni
after that. If you will release Elsa yourself of her promise she would
come to me, I know."

Béla looked for awhile in silence at the earnest face of the other man,
then he burst into a loud, mocking laugh.

"You are mad," he said, "or else drunk."

"I am neither," rejoined the other calmly. "It is all perfectly feasible
if only you will release Elsa. You have so often asserted that you don't
care one brass fillér for the opinion of village folk."

"And I don't."

"Then it cannot matter to you if some blame is cast on you for breaking
off with Elsa on the eve of your wedding. People must see how unsuited
you are to each other and how unhappy your marriage must eventually turn
out. You have no feeling about promises, you have no parents who might
curse you if you break them. Break your promise to Elsa now, Béla, and
you will be doing the finest action of your life. Break your promise to
her, man, and let her come to me."

Béla was still staring at Andor as if indeed he thought the other mad,
but now an evil leer gradually spread over his face and his one eye
closed until it looked like a mere slit through which he now darted on
Andor a look of triumph and of hate.

"Break my promise to Elsa?" he said slowly and deliberately. "I wouldn't
do it, my good man, if you offered me all the gold in your precious
America."

"But you don't love her, Béla," urged Andor, with ardent earnestness.
"You don't really want her."

"No, I don't," said the other roughly, "but I don't want you to have her
either."

"What can it matter to you? There are plenty of pretty girls this side
of the Maros who would be only too glad to step into Elsa's shoes."

"I don't care about any pretty girls on this side of the Maros, nor on
the other either for that matter. I won't give Elsa up to you, my
friend, and she won't break her promise to me because she fears God and
her mother's curse. See?"

"She's far too good for you," cried Andor, with sudden vehemence, for he
had already realized that he must give up all hope now, and the other
man's manner, his coarseness and callousness had irritated him beyond
the bounds of endurance. He hated this cruel, selfish brute who held
power over Elsa with all the hatred of which his hot Magyar blood was
capable. A red mist seemed at times now to rise before his eyes, the
kind of mist that obscures a man's brain and makes him do deeds which
are recorded in hell.

"She's far too good for you," he reiterated hoarsely, even as his
powerful fists clenched themselves in a violent effort to keep up some
semblance of self-control. The thought of Elsa still floated across his
mental vision, of Elsa whose pure white hand seemed to dissipate that
ugly red mist with all the hideous thoughts which it brought in its
trail. "You ought to treat her well, man," he cried in the agony of his
soul, "you've got to treat her well."

The other looked him up and down like a man does an enemy whom he
believes to be powerless to do him any harm. Then he said with a sneer
through which, however, now there was apparent an undercurrent of
boiling wrath:

"I'll treat her just as I choose, and you, my friend, had best in the
future try to attend to your own business."

But Andor, obsessed by the one idea, feeling his own helplessness in the
matter, would not let the matter drop.

"How you can look at another woman," he said sombrely, "while Elsa is
near you I cannot imagine."

He looked round him vaguely, as if he wanted all the dumb, inanimate
things around him to bear witness to this monstrous idea: Elsa flouted
for another woman! Elsa! the most beautiful woman on God's earth, the
purest, the best--flouted! And for whom? for what?--other
girls--women--who were not worthy to walk in the same street as Elsa!
The thought made Andor giddy, his glance became more wandering, less
comprehending . . . that awful red mist was once more blurring his
vision.

And as he looked round him--ununderstanding and wretched--his glance
fell upon the key which he himself had placed upon the brass tray a few
moments ago; and the key brought back to his mind the recollection of
Klara the Jewess, her domination over Béla, her triumph over Elsa, and
also the terrible plight in which she had found herself when she had
begged Andor for friendly help, and given him in exchange the solemn
promise which he had exacted from her.

This recollection eased somewhat the heavy burden of his anxiety, and
there was quite a look of triumph in his eyes when he once more turned
to Béla.

"Well!" he said, "there's one thing certain, and that is that Elsa won't
have to suffer again from the insolence of that Jewess. I have cut the
ground from under your feet in that direction, my friend."

"Indeed!" retorted Béla airily. "How did you manage to do that?"

"I rendered her a service this afternoon--she was in serious trouble and
asked me to help her."

"Oh?--and may I ask the nature of the trouble--and of the service?"
sneered the other.

"Never mind about the nature of the service. I did help Klara in her
trouble, and in return she has given me a solemn promise to have nothing
whatever more to do with you."

"Oh! did she?" cried Béla, whose savage temper, held in check for
awhile, had at last risen to its habitual stage of unbridled fury. All
the hot blood had rushed to his head, making his face crimson and his
eye glowing and unsteady, and his hand shook visibly as he leaned
against the table so that the mugs and bottles rattled, as did the key
upon the metal tray. He, too, felt that hideous red mist enveloping him
and blurring his sight. He hated Andor with all his might, and would
have strangled him if he had felt that he had the physical power to do
it as well as the moral strength. His voice came hoarse and hissing
through his throat as he murmured through tightly clenched teeth:

"She did, did she? And you made her give you that promise which is not
going to bind her, let me tell you that. But let me also tell you in
the meanwhile, my fine gentleman from America, that your d----d
interference will do no good to your former sweetheart, who is already
as good as my wife--and will be my wife to-morrow. Klara Goldstein is my
friend, let me tell you that, and . . ."

He paused a moment . . . something had arrested the words in his throat.
As so often occurs in the mysterious workings of Fate, a small,
apparently wholly insignificant event suddenly caused the full tide of
his destiny to turn--and not only of his own destiny but that of many
others!

An event--a tiny fact--trivial enough for the moment: the touch of his
hand against the key upon the brass tray.

Mechanically he picked up the key: his mind was not yet working quite
clearly, but the shifty glance of his one eye rested upon the key, and
contemplated it for awhile.

"Well!" he murmured vaguely at last, "how strange!"

"What is strange?" queried the other--not understanding.

"That this key should, so to speak, fall like this into my hand."

"That isn't strange at all," said Andor, with a shrug of the shoulders,
for now he thought that Béla was drunk, so curious was the look in his
eye, "considering that I put that key there myself half an hour ago--it
is the key of the back door of this house."

"I know it is," rejoined Béla slowly, "I have had it in my possession
before now . . . when Ignácz Goldstein has been away from home, and it
was not thought prudent for me to enter this house by the front door
. . . late at night--you understand."

Then, as Andor once more shrugged his shoulders in contempt, but
vouchsafed no further comment, he continued still more slowly and
deliberately:

"Isn't it strange that just as you were trying to interfere in my
affairs, this key should, so to speak, fall into my hand. Fate plays
some funny little pranks sometimes, eh, Mr. Guardian Angel?"

"What has Fate got to do with it?" queried Andor roughly.

"You don't see it?"

"No."

"Then perhaps you were not aware of the fact," said Béla blandly, as he
toyed with the key, "that papa Goldstein is going off to Kecskemét
to-night."

"Yes," replied Andor slowly, "I did know that, but . . ."

"But you didn't know, perhaps, that pretty Klara likes a little
jollification and a bit of fun sometimes, and that papa Goldstein is a
very strict parent and mightily particular about the proprieties. It is
a way those cursed Jews have, you know."

"Yes!" said Andor again, "I did know that too."

He was speaking in a curious, dazed kind of way now: he suddenly felt as
if the whole world had ceased to be, and as if he was wandering quite
alone in a land of dreams. Before him, far away, was that red misty
veil, and on ahead he could dimly see Béla, with a hideous grin on his
face, brandishing that key, whilst somehow or other the face of Leopold
Hirsch, distorted with passion and with jealousy, appeared to beckon to
him from behind that distant crimson veil.

"Well, you see," continued Béla, in the same suave and unctuous tones
which he had suddenly assumed, "since pretty Klara is fond of
jollification and a bit of fun, and her father is over-particular, why,
that's where this nice little key comes in. For presently papa will be
gone and the house worthily and properly shut up, and the keys in papa
Goldstein's pocket, who will be speeding off to Kecskemét; but with the
help of this little key, which is a duplicate one, I--who am a great
friend of pretty Klara--can just slip into the house quietly for a
comfortable little supper and just a bit of fun; and no one need be any
the wiser, for I shall make no noise and the back door of this house is
well screened from prying eyes. Have you any further suggestion to make,
my fine gentleman from America?"

"Only this, man," said Andor sombrely, "that it is you who are mad--or
drunk."

"Oh! not mad. What harm is there in it? You chose to interfere between
Klara and me, and I only want to show you that I am the master of my own
affairs."

"But it'll get known. Old Rézi's cottage is not far and she is a
terrible gossip. Back door or no back door, someone will see you
sneaking in or out."

"And if they do--have you any objection, my dear friend?"

"It'll be all over the village--Elsa will hear of it."

"And if she does?" retorted Béla, with a sudden return to his savage
mood. "She will have to put up with it: that's all. She has already
learned to-day that I do as I choose to do, and that she must do as I
tell her. But a further confirmation of this excellent lesson will not
come amiss--at the eleventh hour, my dear friend."

"You wouldn't do such a thing, Béla! You wouldn't put such an insult on
Elsa! You wouldn't . . ."

"I wouldn't what, my fine gentleman, who tried to sneak another fellow's
sweetheart?" sneered Béla as he drew a step or two nearer to Andor. "I
wouldn't what? Come here and have supper with Klara while Elsa's
precious friends are eating the fare I've provided for them and abusing
me behind my back? Yes, I would! and I'll stay just as long as I like
and let anyone see me who likes . . . and Elsa may go to the devil with
jealousy for aught I care."

He was quite close to Andor now, but being half a head shorter, he had
to look up in order to see the other eye to eye. Thus for a moment the
two men were silent, measuring one another like two primitive creatures
of these plains who have been accustomed for generations past to satisfy
all quarrels with the shedding of blood. And in truth, never had man so
desperate a longing to kill as Andor had at this moment. The red mist
enveloped him entirely now, he could see nothing round him but the
hideous face of this coarse brute with its one leering eye and cruel,
sensuous lips.

The vision of Elsa had quite faded from before his gaze, her snow-white
hands no longer tried to dissipate that hideous blood-red veil. Only
from behind Erös Béla's shoulder he saw peering at him through the mist
the pale eyes of Leopold Hirsch. But on them he would not look, for he
felt that that way lay madness.

What the next moment would have brought the Fates who weave the
destinies of mankind could alone have told. Béla, unconscious or
indifferent to the menace which was glowing in Lakatos Andor's eyes,
never departed for a moment from his attitude of swaggering insolence,
and even now with an ostentatious gesture he thrust the key into his
waistcoat pocket.

Andor gave a hoarse and quickly-smothered cry like that of a beast about
to spring:

"You cur!" he muttered through his teeth, "you d----d cur!"

His hands were raised, ready to fasten themselves on the other man's
throat, when the door of the inner room was suddenly thrown open and
Ignácz Goldstein's querulous voice broke the spell that hung over the
two men.

"Now then, my friends, now then," he said fussily as he shuffled into
the room, "it is time that this respectable house should be shut up for
the night. I am just off to catch the slow train to Kecskemét--after
you, my friends, after you, please."

He made a gesture toward the open door and then went up to the table and
poured himself out a final stirrup-cup. He was wrapped from head to foot
in a threadbare cloth coat, lined with shaggy fur, a fur-edged bonnet
was on his head, and he carried a stout stick to which was attached a
large bundle done up in a red cotton handkerchief. This now he slung
over his shoulder.

"Klara, my girl," he called.

"Yes, father," came Klara's voice from the inner room.

"I didn't see the back-door key--the duplicate one I mean--hanging in
its usual place."

"No, father, I know," she replied. "It's all right. I have it in my
pocket. I'll hang it up on the peg in a minute."

"Right, girl," he said as he smacked his lips after the long draft of
wine. "You are quite sure Leopold changed his mind about coming with
me?"

"Quite sure, father."

"I wonder, then, he didn't wait to say good-bye to me."

"Perhaps he'll meet you at the station."

"Perhaps he will. Now then, gentlemen," added the old Jew as he once
more turned to the two men.

Indeed Andor felt that the spell had been lifted from him. He was quite
calm now, and that feeling of being in dreamland had descended still
more forcibly upon his mind.

"You have nothing more to say to me, have you, my good Andor?" said
Béla, with a final look of insolent swagger directed at his rival.

"No," replied Andor slowly and deliberately. "Nothing."

"Then good-night, my friend!" concluded the other, with a sarcastic
laugh. "Why not go to the barn, and dance with Elsa, and sup at my
expense like the others do? You'll be made royally welcome there, I
assure you."

"Thank you. I am going home."

"Well! as you like! I shall just look in there myself now for half an
hour--but I am engaged later on for supper elsewhere, you know."

"So I understand!"

"Gentlemen! My dear friends! I shall miss my train!" pleaded old Ignácz
Goldstein querulously.

He manoeuvred the two men toward the door and then prepared to follow
them.

"Klara!" he called again.

"Coming, father," she replied.

She came running out of the room, and as she reached the door she called
to Andor.

"Andor, you have not said good-night," she said significantly.

"Never mind about that now," said Ignácz Goldstein fretfully, "I shall
miss my train."

He kissed his daughter perfunctorily, then said:

"There's no one in the tap-room now, is there? I didn't notice."

"No," she replied, "no one just now."

"Then I'd keep the door shut, if I were you. I'd rather those fellows
back from Arad didn't come in to-night. The open door would attract
them--a closed one might have the effect of speeding them on their way."

"Very well, father," she said indifferently, "I'll keep the door
closed."

"And mind you push all the bolts home to both the doors," he added
sternly. "A girl alone in a house cannot be too careful."

"All right, father," she rejoined impatiently, "I'll see to everything.
Haven't I been alone like this before?"

The other two men were going down the verandah steps. Goldstein went out
too now and slammed the door behind him.

And Klara found herself alone in the house.



CHAPTER XXVI

"What had Andor done?"


She waited for a moment with her ear glued to the front door until the
last echo of the men's footsteps had completely died away in the
distance, then she ran to the table. The tray was there, but no key upon
it. With feverish, jerky movements she began to hunt for it, pushing
aside bottles and mugs, opening drawers, searching wildly with dilated
eyes all round the room.

The key was here, somewhere . . . surely, surely Andor had not played
her false . . . he would not play her false . . . He was not that sort
. . . surely, surely he was not that sort. He had come back from his
errand--of course she had seen him just now, and . . . and he had said
nothing certainly, but . . .

Well! He can't have gone far; and her father wouldn't hear if she
called. She ran back to the door and fumbled at the latch, for her hands
trembled so that she bruised them against the iron. There! At last it
was done! She opened the door and peered out into the night. Everything
was still, not a footstep echoed from down the street. She took one step
out, on to the verandah . . . then she heard a rustle from behind the
pollarded acacia tree and a rustle amongst its leaves. Someone was
there!--on the watch!--Leopold!

She smothered a scream of terror and in a moment had fled back into the
room and slammed and bolted the door behind her. Now she stood with her
back against it, arms outstretched, fingers twitching convulsively
against the wood. She was shivering as with cold, though the heat in the
room was close and heavy with fumes of wine and tobacco: her teeth were
chattering, a cold perspiration had damped the roots of her hair.

She had wanted to call Andor back, just to ask him definitely if he had
been successful in his errand and what he had done with the key. Perhaps
he meant to tell her; perhaps he had merely forgotten to put the key on
the tray, and still had it in his waistcoat pocket; she had been a fool
not to come out and speak to him when she heard his voice in the
tap-room awhile ago. She had wanted to, but her father monopolized her
about his things for the journey. He had been exceptionally querulous
to-night and was always ready to be suspicious; also Béla had been in
the tap-room with Andor, and she wouldn't have liked to speak of the key
before Béla. What she had been absolutely sure of, however, until now
was that Andor would not have come back and then gone away like this, if
he had not succeeded in his errand and got her the key from Count Feri.

But the key was not there: there was no getting away from that, and she
had wanted to call Andor back and to ask him about it--and had found
Leopold Hirsch standing out there in the dark . . . watching.

She had not seen him--but she had felt his presence--and she was quite
sure that she had heard the hissing sound of his indrawn breath and the
movement which he had made to spring on her--and strangle her, as he had
threatened to do--if she went out by the front door.

Mechanically she passed her hand across her throat. Terror--appalling,
deadly terror of her life--had her in its grasp. She tottered across
the room and sank into a chair. She wanted time to think.

What had Andor done? What a fool she had been not to ask him the
straight question while she had the chance. She had been afraid of
little things--her father's temper, Erös Béla's sneers--when now there
was death and murder to fear.

What had Andor done?

Had he played her false? Played this dirty trick on her out of revenge?
He certainly--now she came to think of it--had avoided meeting her
glance when he went away just now.

Had he played her false?

The more she thought on it, the more the idea got root-hold in her
brain. In order to be revenged for the humiliation which she had helped
to put upon Elsa, Andor had chosen this means for bringing her to
everlasting shame and sorrow--the young Count murdered outside her door,
in the act of sneaking into the house by a back way, at dead of night,
while Ignácz Goldstein was from home; Leopold Hirsch--her tokened
fiancé--a murderer, condemned to hang for a brutal crime; she disgraced
for ever, cursed if not killed by her father, who did not trifle in the
matter of his daughter's good name. . . . All that was Andor's projected
revenge for what she had done to Elsa.

The thought of it was too horrible. It beat into her brain until she
felt that her head must burst as under the blows of a sledge-hammer or
else that she must go mad.

She pushed back the matted hair from her temples, and looked round the
tiny, dark, lonely room in abject terror. From far away came the shrill
whistle of the engine which bore her father away to Kecskemét. It must
be nearly half-past nine, then, and close on half an hour since she had
been left here alone with her terrors. Yet another half-hour and . . .

No, no! This she felt that she could not endure--not another half-hour
of this awful, death-dealing suspense. Anything would be better than
that--death at Leopold's hands--a quick gasp, a final agony--yes! That
would be briefer and better--and perhaps Leo's heart would misgive
him--perhaps . . . but in any case, anything _must_ be better than this
suspense.

She struggled to her feet; her knees shook under her: for the moment she
could not have moved if her very life had depended on it. So she stood
still, propped against the table, her hands clutching convulsively at
its edge for support, and her eyes dilated and staring, still searching
round the room wildly for the key.

At last she felt that she could walk; she tottered back across the room,
back to the door, and her twitching fingers were once more fumbling with
the bolts.

The house was so still and the air was so oppressive. When she paused in
her fumbling--since her fingers refused her service--she could almost
hear that movement again behind the acacia tree outside, and that
rustling among the leaves.

She gave a wild gasp of terror and ran back to the chair--like a
frightened feline creature, swift and silent--and sank into it, still
gasping, her whole body shaken now as with fever, her teeth chattering,
her limbs numb.

Death had been so near! She had felt an icy breath across her throat!
She was frightened--hideously, abjectly, miserably frightened. Death
lurked for her, there outside in the dark, from behind the acacia tree!
Death in the guise of a jealous madman, whose hate had been whetted by
an hour's lonely watch in the dark--lonely, but for his thoughts.

Tears of self-pity as well as of fear rose to the unfortunate girl's
eyes; convulsive sobs shook her shoulders and tore at her heart till she
felt that she must choke. She threw out her arms across the table and
buried her face in them and lay there, sobbing and moaning in her terror
and in her misery.

How long she remained thus, crying and half inert with mental anguish
and pain, she could not afterwards have told. Nor did she know what it
was that roused her from this torpor, and caused her suddenly to sit up
in her chair, upright, wide-awake, her every sense on the alert.

Surely she could not have heard the fall of footsteps at the back of the
house! There was the whole width of the inner room and two closed doors
between her and the yard at the back, and the ground there was soft and
muddy; no footstep, however firm, could raise echoes there.

And yet she had heard! Of that she felt quite sure, heard with that
sixth sense of which she, in her ignorance, knew nothing, but which,
nevertheless, now had roused her from that coma-like state into which
terror had thrown her, and set every one of her nerves tingling once
more and pulsating with life and the power to feel.

For the moment all her faculties seemed merged into that of hearing.
With that same sixth sense she heard the stealthy footsteps coming
nearer and nearer. They had not approached from the village, but from
the fields at the back, and along the little path which led through the
unfenced yard straight to the back door.

These footsteps--which seemed like the footsteps of ghosts, so
intangible were they--were now so near that to Klara's supersensitive
mind they appeared to be less than ten paces from the back door.

Then she heard another footstep--she heard it quite distinctly, even
though walls and doors were between her and them--she heard the movement
from behind the acacia tree--the one that stands at the corner of the
house, in full view of both the doors--she heard the rustle among its
low-hanging branches and that hissing sound as of an indrawn breath.

She shot up from her chair like an automaton--rigid and upright, her
mouth opened as for a wild shriek, but all power of sound was choked in
her throat. She ran into the inner room like one possessed, her mouth
still wide open for the frantic shriek which would not come, for that
agonizing call for help.

She fell up against the back door. Her hands tore at the lock, at the
woodwork, at the plaster around; she bruised her hands and cut her
fingers to the bone, but still that call would not come to her
throat--not even now, when she heard on the other side of the door, less
than five paces from where she lay, frantic with horror, a groan, a
smothered cry, a thud--then swiftly hurrying footsteps flying away in
the night.

Then nothing more, for she was lying now in a huddled mass, half
unconscious on the floor.



CHAPTER XXVII

"The shadow that fell from the tall sunflowers."


How Klara Goldstein spent that terrible night she never fully realized.
After half an hour or so she dragged herself up from the floor. Full
consciousness had returned to her, and with it the power to feel, to
understand and to fear.

A hideous, awful terror was upon her which seemed to freeze her through
and through; a cold sweat broke out all over her body, and she was
trembling from head to foot. She crawled as far as the narrow little bed
which was in a corner of the room, and just managed to throw herself
upon it, on her back, and there to remain inert, perished with cold,
racked with shivers, her eyes staring upwards into the darkness, her
ears strained to listen to every sound that came from the other side of
the door.

But gradually, as she lay, her senses became more alive; the power to
think coherently, to reason with her fears, asserted itself more and
more over those insane terrors which had paralysed her will and her
heart. She did begin to think--not only of herself and of her miserable
position, but of the man who lay outside--dying or dead.

Yes! That soon became the most insistent thought.

Leopold Hirsch, having done the awful deed, had fled, of course, but his
victim might not be dead, he might be only wounded and dying for want of
succour. Klara--closing her eyes--could almost picture him, groaning
and perhaps trying to drag himself up in a vain endeavour to get help.

Then she rose--wretched, broken, terrified--but nevertheless resolved to
put all selfish fears aside and to ascertain the full extent of the
tragedy which had been enacted outside her door. She lit the
storm-lantern, then, with it in her hand, she went through the tap-room
and opened the front door.

She knew well the risks which she was running, going out like this into
the night, and alone. Any passer-by might see her--ask questions,
suspect her of connivance when she told what it was that she had come
out to seek in the darkness behind her own back door. But to this
knowledge and this small additional fear she resolutely closed her mind.
Drawing the door to behind her, she stepped out on to the verandah and
thence down the few steps into the road below.

A slight breeze had sprung up within the last half-hour, and had
succeeded in chasing away the heavy banks of cloud which had hung over
the sky earlier in the evening.

Even as Klara paused at the foot of the verandah steps in order to
steady herself on her feet, the last filmy veil that hid the face of the
moon glided ethereally by. The moon was on the wane, golden and
mysterious, and now, as she appeared high in the heaven, surrounded by a
halo of prismatic light, she threw a cold radiance on everything around,
picking out every tree and cottage with unfailing sharpness and casting
black, impenetrable shadows which made the light, by contrast, appear
yet more vivid and more clear.

All around leaves and branches rustled with a soft, swishing sound, like
the whisperings of ghosts, and from the plains beyond came that
long-drawn-out murmur of myriads of plume-crowned maize as they bent in
recurring unison to the caress of the wind.

Klara's eyes peered anxiously round. Quickly she extinguished her
lantern, and then remained for a while clinging to the wooden balusters
of the verandah, eyes and ears on the alert like a hunted beast. Two
belated csikós[7] from a neighbouring village were passing down the main
road, singing at the top of their voices, their spurred boots clinking
as they walked. Klara did not move till the murmur of the voices and the
clinking of metal had died away and no other sound of human creature
moving or breathing close by broke the slumbering echoes of the village.

[Footnote 7: Herdsmen in charge of foals.]

Only in the barn, far away, people were singing and laughing and making
merry. Klara could hear the gipsy band, the scraping of the fiddles and
banging of the czimbalom, followed now and then by one of those
outbursts of jollity, of clapping of mugs on wooden tables, of banging
of feet and shouts of laughter which characterize all festive gatherings
in Hungary.

Cautiously now Klara began to creep along the low wall which supported
the balustrade. Her feet made no noise in the soft, sandy earth, her
skirts clung closely to her limbs; at every minute sound she started and
paused, clinging yet closer to the shadow which enveloped her.

Now she came to the corner. There, just in front of her was the
pollarded acacia, behind which the murderer had cowered for an hour--on
the watch. The slowly withering leaves trembled in the breeze and their
soughing sounded eerie in the night, like the sighs of a departing soul.

Further on, some twenty paces away, was old Rézi's cottage. All was dark
and still in and around it. Klara had just a sufficient power of
consciousness left to note this fact with an involuntary little sigh of
relief. The murderer had done his work quickly and silently; his victim
had uttered no cry that would rouse the old gossip from her sleep.

When Klara at last rounded the second corner of the house and came in
full view of the unfenced yard in the rear, she saw that it was flooded
with moonlight. For a moment she closed her eyes, for already she had
perceived that a dark and compact mass lay on the ground within a few
feet of the back door. She wanted strength of purpose and a mighty
appeal to her will before she would dare to look again. When she
reopened her eyes, she saw that the mass lay absolutely still. She crept
forward with trembling limbs and knees that threatened to give way under
her at every moment.

Now she no longer thought of herself; there was but little fear of
anyone passing by this way and seeing her as she gradually crawled
nearer and nearer to that inert mass which lay there on the ground so
rigid and silent. Beyond the yard there were only maize-fields, and a
tall row of sunflowers closed the place in as with a wall. And not a
sound came from old Rézi's cottage.

Klara was quite close to that dark and inert thing at last; she put out
her hand and touched it. The man was lying on his face; just as he had
fallen, no doubt; with a superhuman effort she gathered up all her
strength and lifted those hunched-up shoulders from the ground. Then she
gave a smothered cry; the pallid face of Erös Béla was staring
sightlessly up at the moon.

Indeed, for the moment the poor girl felt as if she must go mad, as if
for ever and ever after this--waking or sleeping--she would see those
glassy eyes, the drooping jaw, that horrible stain which darkened the
throat and breast. For a few seconds, which to her seemed an eternity,
she remained here, crouching beside the dead body of this unfortunate
man, trying in vain in her confused mind to conjecture what had brought
Béla here, instead of the young Count, within the reach of Leopold's
maniacal jealousy and revenge.

But her brain was too numbed for reasoning and for coherent thought. She
had but to accept the facts as they were: that Erös Béla lay here--dead,
that Leopold had murdered him, and that she must save herself at all
costs from being implicated in this awful, awful crime!

At last she contrived to gather up a sufficiency of strength--both
mental and physical--to turn her back upon this terrible scene. She had
struggled up to her feet and was turning to go when her foot knocked
against something hard, and as--quite mechanically--her eyes searched
the ground to see what this something was, she saw that it was the key
of the back door, which had evidently escaped from the dead man's hand
as he fell.

To stoop for it and pick it up--to run for the back door, which was so
close by--to unlock and open it and then to slip through it into the
house was but the work of a few seconds--and now here she was once again
in her room, like the hunted beast back in its lair--panting, quivering,
ready to fall--but safe, at all events.

No one had seen her, of that she felt sure. And now she knew--or thought
she knew--exactly what had happened. Lakatos Andor had been to the
castle; he had seen my lord and got the key away from him. He wanted to
ingratiate himself with my lord and to be able to boast in the future
that he had saved my lord's life, but evidently he did mean to have his
revenge not only on herself--Klara--but also on Erös Béla for the
humiliation which they had put upon Elsa. It was a cruel and a dastardly
trick of revenge, and in her heart Klara had vague hopes already of
getting even with Andor one day. But that would come by and by--at some
future time--when all this terrible tragedy would have been forgotten.

For the present she must once more think of herself. The key was now a
precious possession. She went to hang it up on its accustomed peg. Even
Leopold--if he stayed in the village to brazen the whole thing
out--could not prove anything with regard to that key. Erös Béla might
have been a casual passer-by, strolling about among the maize-fields,
not necessarily intent on visiting Klara at dead of night. The key was
now safely on its peg; who would dare swear that Erös Béla or anyone
else ever had it in his possession?

In fact, the secret rested between five people, of which she--Klara--was
one and the dead man another. Well, the latter could tell no tales, and
she, of course, would say nothing. Already she had determined--even
though her mind was still confused and her faculties still numb--that
ignorance would be the safest stronghold behind which she could entrench
herself.

There remained Leo himself, the young Count, and, of course, Andor.
Which of these three would she have the greatest cause to fear?

There was Leo mad with jealousy, the young Count indifferent, and Andor
with curious and tortuous motives in his heart which surely he would not
wish to disclose.

She had a sufficiency of presence of mind to go out and fetch the
storm-lantern from where she had left it at the foot of the verandah
steps. A passer-by who saw her in the act wished her a merry good-night,
to which she responded in a steady voice. Then she carefully locked the
front door, and finally undressed and went to bed. There was no knowing
whether some belated wayfarer might not presently come on the dead man
lying there in the yard: and having roused the neighbours, the latter
might think of calling on Ignácz Goldstein for spirit or what not. It
was not generally known that Ignácz Goldstein was from home, and if
people thumped loudly and long at her door, she must appear as if she
had just been roused from peaceful sleep.

She felt much more calm and fully alive, above all, to her own danger.
That kind of superstitious, unreasoning terror which had assailed her
awhile ago had almost entirely left her. She seemed more composed, more
sure of herself, now that she had been out in the yard and seen the
whole _mise en scène_ of the tragedy, which before that she had only
vaguely imagined.

But what she felt that she could not do was to lie here alone in the
dark, with only the silvery light of the moon creeping in weirdly
through the dulled panes of the tiny window. So she picked up her black
skirt, and stuffed it into the narrow window embrasure, until not a ray
of light from within could be seen to peep through on the other side.
She had placed the storm-lantern in the corner, and this she left
alight. It threw a feeble, yellowish glimmer round the room; after a few
moments, when her eyes were accustomed to this semi-gloom, she found
that she could see every familiar object quite distinctly; even the
shadows did not seem impenetrable, nor could ghosts lurk in the unseen
portions of the tiny room.

Of course there was no hope of sleep--Klara knew well the moment that
she looked on the dead man's face, that she would always see it before
her--to the end of her days. She saw it now, quite distinctly--especially
when she closed her eyes; the moonlit yard, the shadow that fell from
the tall sunflowers, and the huddled, dark mass on the ground, with the
turned-up face and the sightless eyes. But she was not afraid; she only
felt bitterly resentful against Andor, who, she firmly believed, had
played her an odious trick.

She almost felt sorry for Leopold, who had only sinned because of his
great love for her.



CHAPTER XXVIII

"We shall hear of another tragedy by and by."


And so in Marosfalva there was no wedding on the festival day of S.
Michael and All Angels; instead of that, on the day following, there was
a solemn Mass for the dead in the small village church, which was full
to overflowing on that great occasion.

Erös Béla had been found--out in the open--murdered by an unknown hand.
Fehér Károly and his brother, who lived down the Fekete Road, had taken
a cut across the last maize-field--the one situated immediately behind
the inn kept by Ignácz Goldstein, and they had come across Béla's body,
lying in the yard, with face upturned and eyes staring up sightlessly at
the brilliant blue sky overhead.

It was then close on eight o'clock in the morning. The dancing in the
barn had been kept up till then, even though the two most important
personages of the festive gathering were not there to join in the fun.

The bridegroom had not been seen since his brief appearance an hour or
two before supper, and Elsa had only just sat through the meal, trying
to seem cheerful, but obviously hardly able to restrain her tears. After
supper, when her partner sought her for the csárdás, she was nowhere to
be found. Kapus Irma--appealed to--said that the girl was fussy and full
of nerves--for all the world like a born lady. She certainly wasn't very
well, had complained of headache, and been allowed by her mother to go
home quietly and turn into bed.

"She has another two jolly days to look forward to," Irma néni had added
complacently. "Perhaps it is as well that she should get some rest
to-night."

Ah, well! it was a queer wedding, and no mistake! The queerest that had
ever been in Marosfalva within memory of man. A bride more prone to
tears than to laughter! A bridegroom surly, discontented, and paying
marked attentions to the low-down Jewess over at the inn under his
future wife's very nose!

It was quite one thing for a man to assert his own independence, and to
show his bride at the outset on whose feet the highest-heeled boots
would be, but quite another to flout the customs of the countryside and
all its proprieties.

When, after supper, good and abundant wine had loosened all tongues,
adverse comments on the absent bridegroom flowed pretty freely. This
should have been the merriest time of the evening--the merriest time, in
fact, of all the three festive days--the time when one was allowed to
chaff the bride and to make her blush, to slap the lucky bridegroom on
the back and generally to allow full play to that exuberance of spirits
which is always bubbling up to the surface out of a Magyar peasant's
heart.

No doubt that Béla's conduct had upset Elsa and generally cast a gloom
over the festive evening. But the young people were not on that account
going to be done out of their dancing; the older ones might sit round
and gossip and throw up their hands and sigh, but that was no reason why
the gipsies should play a melancholy dirge.

A csárdás it must be, and of the liveliest! And after that another and
yet another. Would it not be an awful pity to waste Erös Béla's money,
even though he was not here to enjoy its fruits? So dancing was kept up
till close on eight o'clock in the morning--till the sun was high up in
the heavens and the bell of the village church tolled for early Mass.
Until then the gipsies scraped their fiddles and banged their czimbalom
almost uninterruptedly; hundreds of sad and gay folk-songs were sung in
chorus in the intervals of dancing the national dance. Cotton petticoats
of many hues fluttered, leather boots--both red and black--clinked and
stamped until the morning.

Then it was that the merry company at last broke up, and that Fehér
Károly and his brother took the short cut behind the inn, and found the
bridegroom--at whose expense they had just danced and feasted--lying
stark and stiff under the clear September sun.

They informed the mayor, who at once put himself in communication with
the gendarmerie of Arad: but long before the police came, the news of
the terrible discovery was all over the village, and there was no
thought of sleep or rest after that.

Worried to death, perspiring and puzzled, the police officers hastily
sent down from Arad had vainly tried to make head or tail of the mass of
conflicting accounts which were poured into their ears in a continuous
stream of loud-voiced chatter for hours at a stretch: and God only knows
what judicial blunders might have been committed before the culprit was
finally brought to punishment if the latter had not, once for all,
himself delivered over the key of the mystery.

Leopold Hirsch had hanged himself to one of the beams in his own back
shop. His assistant found him there--dead--later in the day.

As--by previous arrangement--the whole village was likely to be at Elsa
Kapus' wedding, there would not have been much use in keeping the shop
open. So the assistant had been given a holiday, but he came to the
shop toward midday, when the whole village was full of the terrible news
and half the population out in the street gossiping and commenting on
it--marvelling why his employer had not yet been seen outside his doors.

The discovery--which the assistant at once communicated to the
police--solved the riddle of Erös Béla's death. With a sigh of relief
the police officers adjourned from the mayor's parlour, where they had
been holding their preliminary inquiries, to the castle, where it was
their duty to report the occurrence to my lord the Count.

At the castle of course everyone was greatly surprised: the noble
Countess raised her aristocratic eyebrows and declared her abhorrence of
hearing of these horrors. The Count took the opportunity of cursing the
peasantry for a quarrelsome, worrying lot, and offered the police
officers a snack and a glass of wine. He was hardly sorry for the loss
of his bailiff, as Erös Béla had been rather tiresome of late--bumptious
and none too sober--and his lordship anyhow had resolved to dispense
with his services after he was married. So the death really caused him
very little inconvenience.

Young Count Feri knew nothing, of course. He was not likely to allow
himself or his name to be mixed up with a village scandal: he shuddered
once or twice when the thought flashed through his mind how narrowly he
had escaped Erös Béla's fate, and to his credit be it said he had every
intention of showing Lakatos Andor--who undoubtedly had saved his life
by giving him timely warning--a substantial meed of gratitude.

Of Klara Goldstein little or nothing was seen or heard. The police
officers had certainly gone to the inn in the course of the morning and
had stayed there close on half an hour: but as no one had been allowed
to go into the tap-room during that time, the occurrences there remained
a matter of conjecture. After the officers went away Klara locked the
front door after them and remained practically shut up in the house,
only going in the evening as far as the post, but refusing to speak to
anyone and going past with head erect and a proud, careless air which
deceived no one.

"She'll sing her tune in a minor key by and by, when Ignácz Goldstein
comes home," said the gossips complacently.

"Those Jews are mighty hard on their daughters," commented the older
folk, "if any scandal falls upon them. Ignácz is a hard man and
over-ready with his stick."

"I shouldn't be surprised," was the universal conclusion, "if we should
hear of another tragedy by and by."

"In any case, Klara can't stay in the village," decided the bevy of
young girls who talked the matter over among themselves, and were none
too sorry that the smart, handsome Jewess--who had such a way with the
men--should be comfortably out of the way.

But everyone went to the Mass for the dead on the day following that
which should have been such a merry wedding feast; and everyone joined
in the Requiem and prayed fervently for the repose of the soul of the
murdered man.

He lay in state in the centre of the aisle, with four tall candles at
each corner of the draped catafalque; a few bunches of white and purple
asters clumsily tied together by inexperienced hands were laid upon the
coffin.

Pater Bonifácius preached a beautiful sermon about the swift and
unexpected approach of Death when he is least expected. He also said
some very nice things about the dead man, and there was hardly a dry
eye in the church while he spoke.

In the remote corner of a pew, squeezed between a pillar and her mother,
Elsa knelt and prayed. Those who watched her--and there were
many--declared that not only did she never stop crying for a moment
during Mass, but that her eyes were swollen and her cheeks puffy from
having cried all the night and all the day before.

After Mass she must have slipped out by the little door which gave on
the presbytery garden. It was quite close to the pillar against which
she had been leaning, and no doubt the Pater had given her permission to
go out that way. From the presbytery garden she could skirt the fields
and round the top of the village, and thus get home and give all her
friends the slip.

This, no doubt, she had done, for no one saw her the whole of that day,
nor the next, which was the day of the funeral, and an occasion of
wonderful pomp and ceremony. Béla's brother had arrived in the meanwhile
from Arad, where he was the manager of an important grain store, and he
it was who gave all directions and all the money necessary that his
brother should have obsequies befitting his rank and wealth.

The church was beautifully decorated: there were huge bunches of white
flowers upon the altar, and eight village lads carried the dead man to
his last resting-place; and no less than thirty Masses were ordered to
be said within the next year for the repose of the soul of one who in
life had enjoyed so much prosperity and consideration.

And in the tiny graveyard situated among the maize-fields to the north
of Marosfalva, and which is the local Jewish burial ground, the suicide
was quietly laid to rest. There was no religious service, for there was
no minister of his religion present; an undertaker came down from Arad
and saw to it all; there was no concourse of people, no singing, no
flowers. Ignácz Goldstein--home the day before from Kecskemét--alone
followed the plain deal coffin on its lonely journey from the village to
the field.

It was the shop assistant who had seen to it all. He had gone up to Arad
and seen a married sister of his late master's--Sara Rosen, whose
husband kept a second-hand clothes shop there, and who gave full
instructions to an undertaker whilst declaring herself unable--owing to
delicate health--to attend the funeral herself.

The undertaker had provided a cart and a couple of oxen and two men to
lift the coffin in and out. They came late on the Thursday evening, at
about eight o'clock, and drew up at the back of the late Leopold
Hirsch's shop. No one was about and the night was dark.

Slowly the cart, creaking on its wheels and axles, wound its way through
some maize stubble, up a soft, sandy road to the enclosed little bit of
ground which the local Jews have reserved for themselves.

And the mysterious veil which divides the present from the past fell
quickly over this act of the village tragedy, as it had done with pomp
and circumstance after the banquet which followed the laying to rest of
the murdered man.



CHAPTER XXIX

"Some day."


A week went by after the funeral before Elsa saw Andor again. She had
not purposely avoided him, any more than she had avoided everyone else:
but unlike most girls of her class and of her nationality she had felt a
great desire to be alone during the most acute period of this life's
crisis through which she was passing just now.

At first on that never-to-be-forgotten morning when she woke to her
wedding-day--her white veil and wreath of artificial white roses lying
conspicuously on the top of the chest of drawers, so that her eyes were
bound to alight on them the moment they opened--and saw her mother
standing beside her bed, dishevelled, pale, and obviously labouring
under some terrible excitement, she had been conscious as of an awful
blow on the head, a physical sensation of numbness and of pain.

Even before she had had time to formulate a question she knew that some
terrible calamity had occurred. In jerky phrases, broken by moans and
interjections, the mother had blurted out the news: Erös Béla was
dead--he had been found just now--murdered outside Klara Goldstein's
door--there would be no wedding--Elsa was a widow before she had been a
bride. Half the village was inclined to believe that Ignácz Goldstein
had done the deed in a moment of angry passion, finding Béla sneaking
round his daughter's door when he himself was going away from
home--others boldly accused Andor.

Elsa had said nothing at the time. That same imagined blow on the head
had also deprived her of the power of speech. Fortunately Irma talked so
loudly and so long that she paid no attention to her daughter's silence,
and presently ran out into the village to gather more news.

And Elsa remained alone in the house, save for the helpless invalid in
the next room. She washed and dressed herself quickly and mechanically,
then sat down on her favourite low chair, close beside her crippled
father's knee, cowering there like some little field mouse, attentive,
alert, rigidly still, for very fear of what was to come.

Irma did not come back for two or three hours: when she did it was to
bring the exciting news that Leopold Hirsch had been found hanging to a
beam in his back shop, with the knife wherewith he had killed Erös Béla
lying conspicuously on a table close by.

Elsa felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted from off her
brain. All through these hours the thought of Andor having committed
such an abominable crime never once entered her mind, but nevertheless
when her mother told the news about Leopold Hirsch, and that the police
officers had already left the village, she was conscious of an
overwhelming sense of relief.

Fortunately her mother was busy all day gossiping with her cronies and
Elsa was allowed the luxury of sitting alone most of the day, silent and
absorbed, doing the usual work of the house in the morning and in the
afternoon busying herself with carefully putting away the wedding dress,
the veil, the wreath which would not be wanted now.

Late in the evening, when there was a chance of finding the street
deserted, she ran out as far as the presbytery. Fortunately the night
was dark: a thin drizzle was falling, and it spread a misty veil all
down the village street. Elsa had tied one of her mother's dark-coloured
handkerchiefs over her head and put her darkest-coloured petticoat on
the top of all the others. She had also wrapped her mother's dark shawl
round her shoulders, and thus muffled up she was able to flit
unperceived down the street, a swift little dark figure
undistinguishable from the surrounding darkness of the night.

Fortunately the Pater was at home and ready to see her. She heaved a
sigh of relief as she entered the bare narrow little hall which led on
the right to the Pater's parlour.

She had been able to tell Pater Bonifácius exactly what was troubling
her--that sense of peace, almost of relief, which had descended into her
soul when she heard that she never, never need be Erös Béla's wife.
Since this morning, when first she had heard the terrible news, she had
not thought of his death--that awful fate which had so unexpectedly
overtaken him--she had only thought of her own freedom, the peace which
henceforth would be hers.

That was very wrong of course--a grievous sin no doubt the Pater would
call it. She shed many tears of contrition, listened eagerly to a kind
homily from the old priest on the subject of unnecessary and
unprofitable searchings of conscience, and went away satisfied.

Strangely enough, after this confession she felt far more sorry for poor
Béla than she had done before, and she cried her eyes out both before
and after the funeral because, do what she would, she always saw him
before her as he was that last day of his life--quarrelsome,
dictatorial, tyrannical--and she remembered how she had almost hated him
for his bullying ways and compared him in her mind with Andor's kindness
and chivalry.

And now she cried with remorse because she had hated him during the last
hours of his life; she cried because he had gone to his death unloved,
and lay now in his coffin unregretted; she cried because her heart was
full and heavy and because in the past week--before her wedding day--she
had swallowed so many unshed tears.

And while she felt miserable and not a little forlorn she didn't want to
see anybody, least of all Andor. Whenever she thought of Andor, the same
remorse about Béla gnawed again at her heart, for when she thought of
him she not only felt at peace, but it seemed as if a ray of happiness
illumined the past darkness of her life.

Once or twice during the last day or two, when she had sat stitching,
she caught herself singing softly to herself, and once she knew for
certain that she had smiled.

Then the day came when Andor called at the house. Irma fortunately was
out, having coffee and gossip with a friend. No doubt he had watched
until he was sure that she was well out of the way. Then he knocked at
the door and entered.

Elsa was sitting as usual on the low chair close by the sick man. She
looked up when he entered and all at once the blood rushed to her pale
cheeks.

"May I come in?" he asked diffidently.

"If you like, Andor," she replied.

He threw down his hat and then came to sit on the corner of the table in
his favorite attitude and as close to Elsa as he dared. The eyes of the
paralytic had faintly lit up at his approach.

"Are you quite well, Elsa?" he asked after a long pause, during which
the girl thought that she could hear the beating of her own heart.

"Yes. Quite well thank you, Andor," she replied softly.

"No one has seen you in the village this past week," he remarked.

"No," she said, "I am not very fond of gossip, and there was a deal too
much of it in Marosfalva this past week to please me."

"You are right there, Elsa," he rejoined, "but there were others in the
village, you know, those who did not gossip--but whose heart would have
been gladdened by a sight of you."

"Yes, Andor," she murmured.

We may take it that the young man found these laconic answers distinctly
encouraging, for presently he said abruptly:

"Perhaps, Elsa, it isn't right for me to begin talking to you . . .
about certain matters . . ."

"What matters, Andor?" she asked ingenuously.

"Matters which have lain next to my heart, Elsa, for more years now than
I would care to count."

"Perhaps it is a little too soon, Andor--yet--" she whispered under her
breath.

Oh! She could have whipped herself for that warm blush which now covered
not only her cheeks but her neck and bosom, and for that glow of
happiness which had rushed straight at her heart at his words. But he
had already seen the blush, and caught that expression of happiness in
her blue eyes which suddenly made her look as she did of old--five years
ago--before that wan, pathetic expression of resignation had altered her
sweet face so completely.

"I don't want to worry you, Elsa," he said simply.

"You couldn't worry me, Andor," she said, "you have always been the best
friend I had in the world."

"That is because I have loved you more dearly than anyone ever loved
you on this earth," he said earnestly.

"God bless you for that, Andor."

He leaned forward, nearer to her now: his gaze had become more fixed,
more compelling. Since he had seen that look on her face and that blush
he was sure of his ground; he knew that, given time and peace, the wheel
of fate, which had already taken an upward turn for him, would soon
carry him to the summit of his desires--the woman whom he loved was no
longer unattainable and she had remained faithful throughout all this
time.

"Do you think, Elsa," he asked more insistently now, and sinking his
voice to that whisper which reaches a woman's ear far more truly than
the loudest beating of drum, "do you think that, now that you are free,
you could bring yourself to . . . to care . . . to . . . ? You were very
fond of me once, Elsa," he pleaded.

"I am fond of you now, Andor," she whispered in response. "No, no," she
added hurriedly, for already he had made a movement towards her and the
next moment would have been down on his knees with his arms around her,
but for the gently-restraining touch of her hand, "it is too soon to
talk about that."

"Yes--too soon," he assented with enforced calm, even though his heart
was beating furiously; "it is too soon I know, and I won't worry you,
Elsa--I said I wouldn't and I won't. . . . I am not a cur to come and
force myself on you when you are not ready to listen to me, and we won't
talk about it all . . . not just yet." . . .

His throat felt very dry, and his tongue felt several sizes too large
for his mouth. It was mightily difficult to keep calm and to speak
soberly when one's inclination was firstly to dance a war-dance of
triumph and of joy and then to take that dear, sweet angel of a woman
in one's arms and to kiss her till she was ready to faint.

"When do you think I might speak to you again, Elsa?" he said, with a
certain pathetic hesitancy, "about . . ."

"About what, Andor?" she asked.

"About our getting married--later on."

"Not just yet," she murmured, "but . . ."

"No, no, of course I understand. There are the proprieties and all that
. . . you were tokened to that blackguard and . . . Oh! All right, I am
not going to say anything against him," he added quickly as he saw that
words of protest and reproach were already hovering on her lips. "I
won't say anything about him at all except that he is dead now and
buried, thank the good God! . . . And you . . . you still care for me,
Elsa," he continued, whilst a wave of tenderness seemed to sweep all
other thoughts away. "No, no, don't say anything--not now--it is too
soon, of course--and I've just got to wait till the time comes as best I
can. But you mustn't mind my talking on at random like this . . . for I
tell you I am nearly crazy with joy--and I suppose that you would think
it very wrong to rejoice like this over another man's death."

His talk was a little wild and rambling--it was obvious that he was half
distracted with the prospect of happiness to come. She sat quite still,
listening silently, with eyes fixed to the ground. Only now and then she
would look up--not at Andor, but at the paralytic who was gazing on her
with the sad eyes of uncomprehension. Then she would nod and smile at
him and coo in her own motherly way and he would close his
eyes--satisfied.

And Andor, who had paused for that brief moment in his voluble talk,
went rambling on.

"You know," he said, "that it's perfectly wonderful . . . this room, I
mean . . . when I look round me I can hardly credit my eyes. . . . Just
a week ago . . . you remember? . . . I sat just there . . . at the
opposite corner of the table, and you had your low chair against the
wall just here . . . and . . . and you told me that you were tokened to
Erös Béla and that your wedding would be on the morrow . . . well! That
was little more than a week ago . . . before your farewell feast . . .
and I thought then that never, never could I be happy again because you
told me that never, never could we be anything to each other except a
kind of friendly strangers. . . . I remember then how a sort of veil
seemed to come down in front of my eyes . . . a dark red veil . . .
things didn't look black to me, you know, Elsa . . . but red. . . . So
now I am quite content just to bide my time--I am quite content that you
should say nothing to me--nothing _good_, I mean. . . . It'll take some
time before the thought of so much happiness has got proper root-hold of
my brain."

"Poor Andor!" she sighed, and turned a gaze full of love upon the sick
man. Her heart was brimming over with it, and so the paralytic got the
expression of it in its fullest measure, since Andor was not entitled to
it yet.

"But just tell me for certain, Elsa . . . so that I shouldn't have to
torment myself in the meanwhile . . . just tell me for certain that one
day . . . in the far-distant future if you like, but one day . . . say
that you will marry me."

"Some day, Andor, I will marry you if God wills," she said simply.

"Oh! But of course He will!" he rejoined airily, "and we will be married
in the spring--or the early summer when the maize is just beginning to
ripen . . . and we'll rent the mill from Pali bácsi--shall we, Elsa?"

"If you like, Andor."

"If I like!" he exclaimed. "If I like! The dear God love me, but I think
that if I stay here much longer I shall go off my head. . . . Elsa, you
don't know how much I love you and what I would not do for your sake.
. . . I feel a different man even for the joy of sitting here and
talking to you and no one having the right to interfere. . . . And I
would make you happy, Elsa, that I swear by the living God. I would make
you happy and I would work to keep you in comfort all the days of my
life. You shall be just as fine as Erös Béla would have made you--and
besides that, there would be a smile on your sweet face at every hour of
the day . . . your hands would be as white as those of my lady the
Countess herself, for I would have a servant to wait on you. And your
father would come and live with us and we would make him happy and
comfortable too, and your mother . . . well! your mother would be happy
too, and therefore not quite so cantankerous as she sometimes is."

To Andor there was nothing ahead but a life full of sunshine. He never
looked back on the past few days and on the burden of sin which they
bore. Béla had been a brute of the most coarse and abominable type; by
his monstrous conduct on the eve of his wedding day he had walked to his
death--of his own accord. Andor had _not_ sent him. Oh! he was quite,
quite sure that he had not sent Béla to his death. He had merely forborn
to warn him--and surely there could be no sin in that.

He might have told Béla that Leopold Hirsch--half mad with jealousy--was
outside on the watch with a hunting-knife in his pocket and murder in
his soul. Andor might have told Béla this and he had remained silent.
Was that a sin? considering what a brute the man was, how his action
that night was a deadly insult put upon Elsa, and how he would in the
future have bullied and browbeaten Elsa and made her life a misery--a
veritable hell upon earth.

Andor had thought the problem out; he had weighed it in his mind and he
was satisfied that he had not really committed a sin. Of course he ought
before now to have laid the whole case before Pater Bonifácius, and the
Pater would have told him just what God's view would be of the whole
affair.

The fact that Andor had not thought of going to confession showed that
he was not quite sure what God--as represented by Pater
Bonifácius--would think of it all; but he meant to go by and by and
conclude a permanent and fulsome peace treaty with his conscience.

In the meanwhile, even though the burden of remorse should at times in
the future weigh upon his soul and perhaps spoil a little of his
happiness, well! he would have to put up with it, and that was
all!--Elsa was happy--one sight of her radiant little face was enough
for any fool to see that an infinite sense of relief had descended into
her soul. Elsa was happy--freed from the brute who would have made her
wretched for the rest of her life; and surely the good God, who could
read the secret motives which lay in a fellow's heart, would not be hard
on Andor for what he had done--or left undone--for Elsa's sake.



CHAPTER XXX

"Kyrie eleison."


But the daily routine of everyday life went on at Marosfalva just as it
had done before the double tragedy of St. Michael's E'en had darkened
the pages of its simple history.

The maize had all been gathered in--ploughing had begun--my lord and his
guests were shooting in the stubble. The first torrential rain had
fallen and the waters of the Maros had begun to swell.

Gossip about Erös Béla's terrible end and Leopold Hirsch's suicide had
not by any means been exhausted, but it was supplemented now by talk of
Lakatos Pál's wealth. The old man had been ailing for some time. His
nephew Andor's return had certainly cheered him up for a while, but soon
after that he seemed to collapse very suddenly in health, like old folk
do in this part of the world--stricken down by one or other of the
several diseases which are engendered by the violent extremes of heat
and cold--diseases of the liver for the most part--the beginning of a
slowly-oncoming end.

He had always been reputed to be a miser, and those who were in the know
now averred that Andor had found several thousand florins tucked away in
old bits of sacking and hidden under his uncle's straw paillasse. Pali
bácsi was also possessed of considerable property--some land, a farm and
the mill; there was no doubt now that Andor would be a very rich man one
of these days.

Mothers with marriageable daughters sighed nevertheless in vain. Andor
was not for any of them. Andor had eyes only for Elsa. He had become an
important man in the village now that his uncle was so ill and he was
left to administer the old man's property; and he took his duties very
earnestly in the intervals of courting Kapus Elsa.

As to this no one had cause to make any objection. They had loved one
another and been true to one another for five years; it was clearly the
will of the good God that they should come together at last.

And now October was drawing to its close--to-day was the fourth Sunday
in the month and one of the numerous feasts of our Blessed Lady, one on
which solemn benediction is appointed to be sung in the early afternoon,
and benediction is followed by a procession to the shrine of the Virgin
which stands on the roadside on the way to Saborsó some two kilomètres
distant from Marosfalva. It is a great festival and one to which the
peasantry of the countryside look forward with great glee, for they love
the procession and have a great faith in the efficacy of prayer said at
the shrine.

Fortunately the day turned out to be one of the most glorious sunshiny
days which mid-autumn can yield, and the little church in the afternoon
was crowded in every corner. The older women--their heads covered with
dark-coloured handkerchiefs, occupied the left side of the aisle, the
men crowded in on the right and at the back under the organ loft. Round
about the chancel rail and steps the bevy of girls in gayest Sunday
dresses looked like a garden of giant animated flowers. When the sexton
went the round with the collecting-bag tied to the end of a long pole,
he had the greatest difficulty in making his way through the maze of
many-hued petticoats which, as the girls knelt, stood all round them
like huge bells, with their slim shoulders and small heads above looking
for all the world like the handles.

The children were all placed in the chancel to right and left of the
altar, solemn and well-behaved, with one eye on the schoolmistress and
the other on the Pater.

After the service the order of procession was formed, inside the church:
the children in the forefront with banner carried by the head of the
school--a sturdy maiden on the fringe of her teens, very proud to carry
the Blessed Virgin's banner. She squared her shoulders well, for the
banner was heavy, and the line of her young hips--well accentuated by
the numerous petticoats which a proud mother had tied round her
waist--gave a certain dignity to her carriage and natural grace to her
movements.

Behind the children came the young girls--those of a marriageable age
whom a pious custom dedicates most specially to the service of Our Lady.
Their banner was of blue silk, and most of them were dressed in blue,
whilst blue ribbons fluttered round their heads as they walked.

Then came Pater Bonifácius under a velvet-covered dais which was carried
by four village lads. He wore his vestments and carried a holy relic in
his hands; the choir-boys swinging their metal censers were in front of
him in well-worn red cassocks and surplices beautifully ironed and
starched for the occasion.

In the rear the crowd rapidly closed in; the younger men had a banner to
themselves, and there were the young matrons, the mothers, the fathers,
the old and the lonely.

The sexton threw open the doors, and slowly the little procession filed
out. Outside a brilliant sunshine struck full on the whitewashed walls
of the little schoolhouse opposite. It was so dazzling that it made
everybody blink as they stepped out from the semi-dark church into this
magnificent flood of light.

In the street round the church a pathetic group awaited the appearance
of the procession, those that were too old to walk two kilomètres to the
shrine, those who were lame and those who were sick. Simply and with
uninquiring minds, they knelt or stood in the roadway, content to watch
the banners as they swung gaily to the rhythmic movements of the
bearers, content to see the holy relics in the Pater's hand, content to
feel that subtle wave of religious sentiment pass over them which made
them at peace with their little world and brought the existence of God
nearer to their comprehension.

Slowly the procession wound its way down the village street. Pater
Bonifácius had intoned the opening orisons of the Litany:

"Kyrie eleison!"

And men and women chanted the response in that quaintly harsh tone which
the Magyar language assumes when it is sung. The brilliant sunlight
played on the smooth hair of the girls, the golds, the browns and the
blacks, and threw sharp glints on the fluttering ribbons of many colours
which a light autumn breeze was causing to dance gaily and restlessly.
The whole village was hushed save for the Litany, the clinking of the
metal chains as the choir-boys swung the censers and the frou-frou of
hundreds of starched petticoats--superposed, brushing one against the
other with a ceaseless movement which produced a riot of brilliant
colouring.

Soon the main road was reached, and now the vast immensity of the plain
lay in front and all round--all the more vast and immense now it seemed,
since not even the nodding plumes of maize or tall, stately sunflowers
veiled the mystery of that low-lying horizon far away.

Nothing around now, save that group of willow trees by the bank of the
turbulent Maros--nothing except the stubble--stumps of maize and pumpkin
and hemp, and rigid lines of broken-down stems of sunflowers, with
drooping, dead leaves, and brown life still oozing out of the torn
stems.

And in the immensity, the sweet, many-toned sounds of summer--the call
of birds, the quiver of growing things, the trembling of ripening
corn--has yielded to the sad tune of autumn--a tune made up of the
hushed sighs of dying nature, as she sinks slowly and peacefully into
her coming winter's sleep. The swallows and the storks have gone away
long ago. They know that in this land of excessive heat and winter
rigours, frost and snow tread hard on the heels of a warm, autumnal day.
Only a flight of rooks breaks the even line of the sky; their cawing
alone makes at times a weird accompaniment to the chanting of the
Litany. And the Maros--no longer sluggish--now sends her swollen waters
with a dull, rumbling sound westward to the arms of the mother stream.

Silence and emptiness!

Nothing except the sky, with its unending panorama of ever-varying
clouds, and its infinite, boundless, mysterious horizon, which enfolds
the world of the plains in a limitless embrace. Nothing except the
stubble and the sky, and far, very far away, a lonely cottage, with its
surrounding group of low, mop-head acacias, and the gaunt, straight arm
of a well pointing upwards to the sun.

And through the silent, vast immensity the little procession of village
folk, with banners flying and quaint, harsh voices singing the Litany,
winds its way along the flat, sandy road, like a brightly-coloured
ribbon thrown there by a giant hand, and made to flutter and to move by
a giant's breath.

Presently the shrine came in sight: just a dark speck at first in the
midst of the great loneliness, then more and more distinct--there on the
roadside--all by itself without a tree near it--lonely in the bosom of
the plain.

The procession came to a halt in front of it, and two hundred pairs of
eyes, brimful with simple faith and simple trust, gazed in reverence on
the naïve wax figure behind the grating, within its throne of rough
stone and whitewash. It was dressed in blue calico spangled with tinsel,
and had a crown on its head made of gilt paper and a veil of coarse
tarlatan. Two china pots containing artificial flowers were placed on
either side of the little image.

It was all very crude, very rough, very naïve, but a fervent,
unsophisticated imagination had endowed it with a beauty all the more
real, perhaps, because it only existed in the hearts of a handful of
ignorant children of the soil. It made Something seem real to them which
otherwise might have been difficult to grasp; and now when Pater
Bonifácius in his gentle, cracked voice intoned the invocations of the
Litany, the "Salus infirmorum" and "Refugium peccatorum" and, above all,
the "Consolatrix afflictorum" the response "Ora pro nobis" came from two
hundred trusting hearts--praying, if not for themselves, then for those
who were dear to them: the infirm, the sinner, the afflicted.

And among those two hundred hearts none felt the need for prayer more
than Andor and Elsa. They had left affliction behind them, they stood
upon the threshold of a new life--where happiness alone beckoned to
them, and sorrow and parting lay vanquished behind the gates of the
past. But in spite, or perhaps because, of this happiness which beckoned
so near now, there was a tinge of sadness in their hearts, that sadness
which always comes with joy once extreme youth has gone by . . . the
sadness which hovers over finite things, the sense of future which so
quickly becomes the past.

From where Andor stood, holding the dais above Pater Bonifácius' head,
he could see Elsa's smooth, fair head among the crowd of other girls.
She had tied her hair in at the nape of the neck with a bit of blue
ribbon, leaving it to fall lower down in two thick plaits well below her
waist. She looked like a huge blue gentian kissed by the sun, for her
top petticoat was of blue cotton, and her golden head seemed like the
sweet-scented stamen.

Andor thought that he could hear her voice above that of everyone else,
and when Pater Bonifácius intoned the "Regina angelorum" he thought that
indeed the heavenly Queen had no fairer subject up there than Elsa.

When the little procession was once more ready to return to the village,
the bearers of the dais were relieved by four other lads, and Andor
found the means, during the slight hubbub which occurred while the
procession was being formed, of working his way close to Elsa's side.

It was not an unusual thing for young men and girls who had much to say
to one another to fall away from the procession on its way home, and to
wander back arm in arm through the maize-fields or over the stubble,
even as their shadows lengthened out upon the ground.

Andor's hand had caught hold of Elsa's elbow, and with insistent
pressure he kept her out of the group of her companions. Gradually the
procession was formed, and slowly it began to move, the banners
fluttered once more in the breeze, once more the monotonous chant broke
the silence of the plain.

But Elsa and Andor had remained behind close beside the shrine. She had
yielded to his insistence, knowing what it was that he meant to say to
her while they walked together toward the sunset. She knew what he
wanted to say, and what he expected her to promise, and he knew that at
last she was ready to listen, and that she would no longer hold her
heart in check, but let it flow over with all the love which it
contained, and that she was ready at last to hold up to him that cup of
happiness for which he craved.

One or two couples had also remained behind, but they had already
wandered off toward the bank of the Maros. Elsa had knelt down before
the crude image of the "Consoler of the afflicted;" her rosary was wound
round her fingers, she prayed in her simple soul, fervently,
unquestioningly, for happiness and for peace.

Then, when the little procession in the distance became wrapped in the
golden haze which hung over the plain, and the chanting of the Litany
came but as a murmur on the wings of the autumn breeze, she took Andor's
arm, and together they walked slowly back toward home.

The peace which rests over the plain enveloped them both; from the sky
above the last vestige of cloud had been driven away by the breeze, and
far away on that distant horizon where lay the land of the unknown the
sun was slowly sinking to rest.

Like a huge, drooping rose it seemed--its rays like petals falling away
from it one by one. Mute yet quivering was the plain around, pulsating
with life, yet silent in its autumnal agony. From far away came the
sweet sound of the evening Angelus rung from the village
church--distant and soft, like a sound from heaven or like an echo of
some beautiful dream.

And these two were alone with the sunset and with the stubble--alone in
this vastness which is so like the sea--alone--two tiny, moving black
specks with a background of radiance and a golden haze to envelop them.
In this immensity it seemed so much more easy to speak of love--for love
could fill the plain and find room for its own immensity in this
vastness which knows no trammels. To Andor and Elsa it seemed as if at
last the plain had revealed its secret to them, had lifted for them that
veil of mystery which wraps her up all round where earth and sky meet in
the golden distance beyond.

They knew suddenly just what lay behind the veil, they knew if it were
lifted what it was that they would see--the land of gold was the land of
love, where men and women wandered hand in hand, where sorrow was a
dwarf and grief a cripple, since love--the Almighty King of the unknown
land--had wounded them and vanquished them both.

And they, too, now wandered toward that land, even though it still
seemed very far away. To the accompaniment of the Angelus bell they
wandered, with the distant echo of the chanted Litany still ringing in
their ear. The plain encompassed her children with her all-embracing
peace, and she gave them this one supreme moment of happiness to-day,
while the setting sun clothed the horizon with gold.



CHAPTER XXXI

"What about me."


And time slipped by with murmurings of words that have no meaning save
for one pair of ears. Andor talked fondly and foolishly, and Elsa mostly
was silent. She had loved this walk over the stubble, and the plain had
been in perfect peace save for the rumbling of the Maros, insistent and
menacing, which had struck a chill to the girl's heart, like a presage
of evil.

She tried to swallow her fears, chiding herself for feeling them, doing
her best to close her ears to those rumbling, turbulent waters that
seemed to threaten as they tumbled along on their way.

Gradually as they neared the village that curious feeling of impending
evil became more strong: she could not help speaking of it to Andor, but
he only laughed in that delightfully happy--almost defiantly happy--way
of his, and for a moment or two she was satisfied.

But when at about half a kilomètre from home she caught sight of Klara
Goldstein walking away from the village straight toward her and Andor,
it seemed as if her fears had suddenly assumed a more tangible shape.

Klara looked old and thin, she thought, pathetic, too, in her plain
black dress--she who used to be so fond of pretty clothes. Elsa gave her
a hearty greeting as soon as she was near enough to her, and extended a
cordial hand. She had no cause to feel well-disposed toward the Jewess,
but there was something so forlorn-looking about the girl now, and such
a look of sullen despair in her dark eyes, that Elsa's gentle nature was
at once ready to forgive and to cheer.

"It is a long time since I have seen you, Klara," she said pleasantly.

"No wonder," said the other girl, with a shrug of her thin shoulders,
"father won't let me out of his sight."

She had nodded to Andor, but by tacit consent they had not shaken hands.
Klara now put her hands on her hips, and, like a young animal let free
after days of captivity, she drew in deep breaths of sweet-scented air.

"Ah!" she said with a sigh, "it is good to be out again; being a
prisoner doesn't suit me, I can tell you that."

"Your dear father seems to be very severe with you, Klara," said Elsa
compassionately.

"Yes! curse him!" retorted the Jewess fiercely, as a savage, cruel look
flashed through her sunken eyes. "He nearly killed me when he came home
from Kecskemét that time--beat me like a dog--and now . . ."

"Poor Klara!"

"I shouldn't have minded the beating so much. Among our people, parents
have the right to be severe, and it is better to take a beating from
your father than to be punished by the rabbi."

"Your dear father will forgive you in time," suggested Elsa gently.

She felt miserably uncomfortable, and would have given worlds to be rid
of Klara. She couldn't think why the girl had stopped to talk to her and
Andor: in fact she was more than sure that Klara had come out this
evening on purpose to talk to her and to Andor; for now she stood
deliberately in front of them both with arms crossed in front of her and
defiant eyes fixed now upon one and now upon the other. Andor too was
beginning to look cross and sullen; this meeting coming on the top of
that lovely walk seemed like a black shadow cast over the radiance of
their happiness, and this thin, tall girl, all in black, with black hair
fluttering round her pale face, seemed like a big black bird of evil
presage: her skirts flapped round her knees like wings and her voice
sounded cold and harsh like the croaking of a raven.

But Elsa's kindly disposition did not allow her to be too obviously
unkind to the Jewess. Perhaps after all the girl meant no harm, and had
only run out now like a released colt, glad to feel freedom in the air
around her and the vastness lying stretched out before her to infinity
beyond. Perhaps she had only sought the company of the first-comers in
order to get a small measure of sympathy. But now, though Elsa's gentle
words should have softened her mood, she retorted with renewed
fierceness:

"Curse him! I don't want his forgiveness! and if ever he wants mine--on
his deathbed--he won't get it--even if he should die in torment for want
of a kind word from me."

"Klara, you mustn't say that," cried Elsa, horrified at what she
considered almost blasphemy. "Your father is your father, remember--and
even if he has been harsh to you . . ."

Klara interrupted her with a loud and strident laugh.

"If he has been harsh to me!" she exclaimed. "Didn't I tell you that he
thrashed me like a dog, so that I was sick for days. But I wouldn't mind
that so much. Bruises mend sooner or later, but it's that abominable
marriage which will make me curse him to my dying day."

"Marriage? . . . what marriage? . . ."

"With a man I had never seen in my life until it was all settled. Just a
man who is so ugly and so bad-tempered and so repugnant to every girl
whom he knows that nobody would have him--but just a man who wanted a
wife. The rabbi at Arad knew about him and he spoke about him to
father--it seems that he is quite rich--and father has given me to him
and I am to be married within a fortnight. Curse them! curse them all, I
say! Oh! I wish I had the pluck to run away, or to kill myself or do
something--but I am such an abominable coward--and I shall loathe to
live in Arad in a tiny secondhand clothes shop, with that hideous
monster for a husband--pointed at by everyone as the girl with a
disgraceful story to her credit and sold to a creature whom no one else
would have--in order to cover up a scandal."

Elsa was silent; her heart now was full of pity for the girl, who indeed
was being punished far more severely than she deserved. It was clear
that Klara was terribly resentful at her fate, and there was a look of
vengeful rebellion in the glance which she threw on Elsa and Andor now.

Overhead there was flapping of wings--a flight of rooks cut through the
air and there were magpies in their trail.

"Three for a wedding," said Andor with a forced laugh, trying to break
the spell which--much against his will--seemed to have been suddenly
cast over his happy spirits.

"One for sorrow, more like," retorted Klara.

"No, no, come!" he rejoined; "you must not look at it like that. There
is always some happiness to be got out of married life. You are not very
happy in your old home--you will like to have one of your own--a wedding
is only the prelude to better things."

"That depends on the wedding, my friend," she sneered; "this one will
be a finish, not a prelude--the naughty child, well whipped, sent out of
mischief's way."

"I am sorry, Klara, that you feel it so strongly," he said more kindly.

"Yes," she retorted. "I dare say, my good man, you are sorry enough for
me now, but you might have thought of all that, you know, before you
played me that dirty trick."

"What do you mean?" he broke in quickly.

"Just what I say," she replied, "and no more. A dirty, abominable trick,
I call it, and I cannot even show you up before the village--I could not
even speak of you to the police officers. Oh, yes!" she continued more
and more vehemently, as a flood of wrath and of resentment and a burning
desire for getting even with Fate seemed literally to sweep her off her
mental balance and cause her to lose complete control of her tongue,
"oh, yes! my fine gentleman! you can go and court Elsa now, and whisper
sweet love-words in her ears--you two turtle-doves are the edification
of the entire village now--and presently you will get married and live
happy ever afterwards. But what I want to ask you, my friend," she
added, and she took a step or two nearer to him, until her hot and angry
breath struck him in the face and he was forced to draw himself back,
away from that seething cauldron of resentment and of vengeance which
was raging before him now, "what I want to ask you is have you ever
thought of me?"

"Thought of you, Klara?" he said quietly, even as he felt, more than
saw, that Elsa too had drawn back a little--a step or two further away
from Klara, but a step or two also further away from him. "Thought of
you?" he reiterated, seeing that Klara did not reply immediately, and
that just for one brief moment--it was a mere flash--a look of
irresolution had crept into her eyes, "why should I be thinking about
you?"

"Why, indeed?" she said with a wrathful sneer. "What hurt had I done to
you, Andor, that is what I want to know. I was always friendly to you. I
had never done you any wrong--nor did I do Elsa any wrong--any wrong, I
mean, that mattered," she continued, talking more loudly and more
volubly because Andor was making desperate efforts to stop and interrupt
her. "Béla would only have run after another woman if I had turned my
back on him. And then when you asked me to leave him alone, I promised,
didn't I? What you asked me to do I promised. . . . And I meant to keep
my promise to you, and you knew it . . . and yet you rounded on me like
that. . . ."

"Silence, Klara," he cried at the top of his voice as he shook the girl
roughly by the shoulder.

But she paid no heed to him--she was determined to be heard, determined
to have her say. All the bitterness in her had been bottled up for
weeks. She meant to meet Andor face to face before she was packed off as
the submissive wife of a hated husband--the naughty child, whipped and
sent out of the way--she meant to throw all the pent-up bitterness
within her, straight into his face--and meant to do it when Elsa was
nigh. For days and days she had watched for an opportunity; but her
father had kept her a prisoner in the house, besides which she had no
great desire to affront the sneering looks of village gossips. But this
evening was her opportunity. For this she had waited, and now she meant
to take it, and no power on earth, force or violence would prevent her
from pouring out the full phial of her venomous wrath.

"I will not be silent," she shrieked, "I will not! You did round on me
like a cur--you sneak--you double-faced devil. . . ."

"Will you be silent!" he hissed through his teeth, his face deadly pale
now with a passion of wrath at least as fierce as hers.

But now Elsa's quiet voice interposed between these two tempestuous
souls.

"No!" she said firmly, "Klara shall not be silent, Andor. Let go her arm
and let her speak. I want to hear what she has to say."

"She is trying to come between you and me, Elsa," said Andor, who was
trying to keep his violent rage in check. "She tried to come between you
and Béla, and chose an ugly method to get at what she wanted. She hates
you . . . why I don't know, but she does hate you, and she always tries
to do you harm. Don't listen to her, I tell you. Why! just look at her
now! . . . the girl is half mad."

"Mad?" broke in Klara, as with a jerky movement of her shoulders she
disengaged herself from Andor's rough grasp. "I dare say I am mad. And
so would you be," she added, turning suddenly to Elsa, "so would you be,
if all in one night you were to lose everything you cared for in the
world--your freedom--the consideration of your friends--the man who some
day would have made you a good husband--everything, everything--and all
because of that sneaking, double-faced coward."

"If you don't hold your tongue . . ." cried Andor menacingly.

"You will kill me, won't you?" she sneered. "One murder more or less on
your conscience won't hurt you any more, will it, my friend? You will
kill me, eh? Then you'll have two of us to your reckoning by and by, me
and Béla!"

"Béla!" the cry, which sounded like a protest--hot, indignant,
defensive--came from Elsa. She was paler than either of the others, and
her glowing, inquiring eyes were fixed upon Klara with the look of an
untamed creature ready to defend and to protect the thing that it holds
dear.

"Don't listen to her, Elsa," pleaded Andor in a voice rendered hoarse
with an overwhelming apprehension.

He felt as if his happiness, his life, the whole of this living,
breathing world were slipping away from him--as if he had suddenly woke
up from a beautiful, peaceful dream and found himself on the edge of a
precipice and unable, in this sudden rude awakening, to keep a foothold
upon the shifting sands. There was a mist before his eyes--a mist which
seemed to envelop Elsa more and more, making her slim, exquisite figure
appear more dim, blurring the outline of her gold-crowned head, getting
more and more dense until even her blue eyes had disappeared away from
him--away--snatched from his grasp--wafted away by that mist to the
distant land beyond the low-lying horizon.

Something in the agony of his appeal, something in the pathos of Elsa's
defiant attitude must have struck a more gentle cord in the Jewess'
heart. The tears gathered in her eyes--tears of self-pity at the misery
which she seemed to be strewing all round her with a free hand.

"I don't think that I really meant to tell you, Elsa," she said more
quietly, "not lately, at any rate. Oh, I dare say at first I did mean to
hurt you--but a month has gone by and I was beginning to forget. People
used to say of me that I was a good sort--it was the hurt that _he_ did
me that seems to have made a devil of me. . . . And then--just now when
I saw the other folk coming home in the procession and noticed that you
and Andor weren't among them, I guessed that you would be walking back
together arm-in-arm--and that the whole world would be smiling on you
both, while I was eating out my heart in misery."

She was speaking with apparent calm now, in a dull and monotonous voice,
her eyes fixed upon the distant line of the horizon, where the glowing
sun had at last sunk to rest. The brilliant orange and blood-red of the
sky had yielded to a colder crimson tint--it, too, was now slowly
turning to grey.

Elsa stood silent, listening, and Andor no longer tried to force Klara
to silence. What was the good? Fate had spoken through her lips--God's
wrath, perhaps, had willed it so. For the first time in all these weeks
he realized that perhaps he had committed a deadly sin, and that he had
had no right to reckon on happiness coming to him, because of it. He
stood there, dazed, letting the Jewess have her way. What did it matter
how much more she said? Perhaps, on the whole, it was best that Elsa
should learn the whole truth now.

And Klara continued to speak in listless, apathetic tones, letting her
tongue run on as if she had lost control over what she said, and as if a
higher Fate was forcing her to speak against her will.

"I suppose," she said thoughtfully, "that some kind of devil did get
into my bones then. I wandered out into the stubble, and I saw you
together coming from the distance. The sunlight was full upon you, and
long before you saw me I saw your faces quite distinctly. There was so
much joy, so much happiness in you both, that I seemed to see it shining
out of your eyes. And I was so broken and so wretched that I couldn't
bear to see Andor so happy with the girl who rightly belonged to
Béla--the wretched man whom he himself had sent to his death."

"Whom he himself had sent to his death?" broke in Elsa quietly. "What do
you mean, Klara?"

"I mean that it was young Count Feri who was to have come to see me that
night. Father being away, he wanted to come and have a little chat and a
bit of supper with me. There was no harm in that, was there? He didn't
care to be seen walking in at the front door--as there's always such a
lot of gossip in this village--so he asked me for the back-door key, and
I gave it to him."

"Well?"

"Leopold missed the key later on, and guessed I had given it to Count
Feri. He was mad with jealousy and threatened to kill anyone who dared
come sneaking in round the back way. He wouldn't let me out of his
sight--and threatened to strangle me if I attempted to go and get the
key back from Count Feri. I was nearly crazy with fear. Wouldn't you
have been," she added defiantly, "if you had a madman to deal with and
no one near to protect you?"

"Perhaps," replied Elsa, under her breath.

"Then Andor came into the tap-room. With soft words and insinuating
promises he got me to tell him what had happened. I didn't want to at
first--I mistrusted him because of what had happened at the banquet--I
knew that he hated me because of you."

"It is not true," broke in Andor involuntarily.

"Let her tell her story her own way," rejoined Elsa, with the same
strange quiet which seemed now to envelop her soul.

"There's nothing more to tell," retorted Klara. "Nothing, at any rate,
that you haven't guessed already. I told Andor all about Count Feri and
the key, and how terrified I was that Leopold would do some deadly
mischief. He offered to go to the castle and get the key away from the
young Count."

"Well?"

"Well! Andor was in love with you, wasn't he?" she continued, speaking
once more with vehemence; "he wanted you, didn't he? And he hated Béla
having you. He hated me, too, of course. So he got the key away from
Count Feri, and later on, after you had followed Béla almost to the
tap-room and you had some words with him just outside . . . you
remember?"

"Yes."

"Andor had the key in his pocket then--and he gave it to Béla. . . ."

There was silence for awhile now--that silence which falls upon the
plain during the first hour after sunset--and which falls upon human
creatures when destiny has spoken her last word. In the village far away
the worshippers had gone back into the church, all sound of chanting and
praying had died away behind its walls; there was no flight of birds
overhead, nor call of waterfowl from the bank of the stream, the autumn
breeze had gone to rest with the sun, the leaves of acacias and willows
lay still, and even the turbulent waters of the Maros seemed momentarily
hushed.

"Is that true, Andor?"

It was Elsa's voice that spoke, but the voice sounded muffled and dull,
as if it came from far away or from out the depths of the earth. Then,
as Andor made no reply, but gazed on Elsa in mute and passionate appeal,
like a man who is drowning would gaze on the shore which he cannot
reach, Klara said slowly:

"Oh! it's true enough. You cannot deny it, can you, Andor? You wanted
your revenge on me, and you wanted to be rid of Béla--you wanted Elsa
for yourself, but you didn't care one brass fillér what would become of
me after that. You left me without a thought, lonely and unprotected,
knowing that a madman was prowling outside, ready to kill me or any man
who came along. You gave Béla that key, didn't you? . . . and told him
nothing about Leopold--and you didn't care what became of me, so long as
you got rid of Béla and could have Elsa for yourself."

"And now you have had your say, Klara," said Andor, breaking with a
mighty effort the spell of silence which had held him all this while;
"you have made all the mischief that you wanted to make. Suppose you
leave us alone now . . . Elsa and me . . . alone with the misery which
you have created for us."

Then, as for a moment she didn't move, but looked on him through
narrowed lids and with a sneer, half of pity and half of triumph, he
continued with a sudden outburst of fierceness:

"Well! you have had your say! . . . Why don't you go?"

Klara shrugged her shoulders and said more lightly:

"Oh, very well, my friend, I'll go. . . . Good-bye, Elsa," she added,
with sudden earnestness. "I don't suppose that you want to shake hands
with me--and I dare say it's no use asking you to think kindly of
me--but I wish you would try and believe that I am sorry I lost myself
as I did. I don't think that I ever would have told you if I hadn't seen
_him_ looking so happy and so complacent after the horrible, dirty trick
which he played me. People used to say that I had a good heart, but, by
the Almighty, I declare that I seem to have lost my head lately. That's
what I say, Elsa. It's all very well, but what about me? What had I
done?--and now, look at my life! But don't you fret about him or any
other man. Take my word for it, men are not worth it."

And having said that she turned on her heel and slowly walked away,
leaving behind her an ocean of desolation. She walked away--with a slow,
swinging stride, one hand on her hip, her head thrown back.

For a long time her darkly-clad figure was silhouetted against the
evening sky, a speck of blackness upon the immensity around. Elsa
watched her go, watched that tiny black speck which, like the locust
which at times devastates the plains, had left behind it an irreparable
trail of misery.



CHAPTER XXXII

"The land beyond the sunset."


And now the shadows of evening were slowly invading the plains. The
autumn wind, lulled for a time to rest with the setting of the sun, had
sprung up in angry gusts, lashing up clouds from the southwest and
sending them to tear along and efface the last vestige of the evening
crimson glow.

Elsa and Andor had both remained quite still after Klara left them; yet
Elsa--like all simple creatures who feel acutely--was longing to run and
let the far horizon, the distant unknown land, wrap and enfold her while
she thought things out for herself, for indeed this real world--the
world of men and women, of passions and hatred and love--was nothing but
a huge and cruel puzzle. She longed for solitude--the solitude which the
plains can offer in such absolute completeness--because her heart was
heavy and she felt that if she were all alone she might ease the weight
on her heart in a comforting flow of tears.

But this would not have been kind to Andor. She could not leave him now,
when he looked so broken down with sorrow and misery and doubt. So,
after a little while, when she felt that if she spoke her voice would be
quite steady, she said gently:

"It is not all true, is it, Andor?"

She could not--she would not believe it all true--not in the way that
Klara had put it before her, with all its horrible details of
callousness and cowardice. For more years than she could remember she
had loved and trusted Andor--she had known his simple, loyal nature, his
kind and gentle ways--a few spiteful words from a jealous woman were not
likely to tear down in a moment the solid edifice of her affection and
her confidence. True! his silence had told her something that was a
bitter truth; his passionate rage against Klara had been like a cruel
stab right into her heart--but even then she wanted the confirmation
which could only come from his own lips--and for this she waited when
she asked him, quite simply, altogether trustingly:

"It is not true, is it?"

Nor did it occur to Andor to lie to her about it all; the thought of
denial never for one moment entered his head. The fatalism peculiar to
this Oriental race made the man scorn to shield himself behind a lie.
Béla was now for ever silent; the young Count would scorn to speak! His
own protestations in the ear of this loving, simple-minded girl, against
the accusations of a woman of the despised race--jealous, bitter,
avowedly half-crazy--needed only to be uttered in order to be
whole-heartedly believed. But even the temptation to pursue such a
course never assailed his soul. With the limitless sky above him, the
vast immensity of the plains stretching out unbroken far away, with the
land under his feet and the scent of the maize-stubble in his nostrils,
he was too proud of himself as a man to stoop to such a lie.

So when Elsa spoke to him and asked him that one straight and firm
question, he raised his head and looked straight into her tear-dimmed
eyes.

"What, Elsa?" he asked quietly.

"That you let Béla go to his death--just like that--as Klara said . . .
that is not all true, is it?"

And as she returned his look--fearlessly and trustfully--she knew that
the question which she had thus put to him was really an affirmation of
what she felt must be the truth. But already Andor had raised his voice
in hot and passionate protest.

"He was a brute to you, Elsa," he affirmed with all the strength of his
manhood, the power of his love, which, in spite of all, would not
believe in its own misery; "he would have made you wretchedly unhappy
. . . he . . ."

"You did do it, then?" she broke in quietly.

"I did it because of you, Elsa," he cried, and his own firm voice was
now half-choked with sobs. "He made you unhappy even though you were not
yet bound to him by marriage. Once you were his wife he would have made
you miserable . . . he would have bullied you . . . beaten you, perhaps.
I heard him out under the verandah speaking to you like the sneering
brute that he was. . . . And then he kissed you . . . and I . . . But
even then I didn't give him the key. . . . Klara lied when she said
that. I didn't urge him to take it, even--I did not speak about the key.
It was lying on the table where I had put it--he took it up--I did not
give it him."

"But you let him take it. You knew that he meant to visit Klara, and
that Leopold was on the watch outside. Yet you let him go. . . ."

"I let him go. . . . I was nearly mad then with rage at the way he had
treated you all day. . . . His taking that key was a last insult put
upon you on the eve of your wedding day. . . . The thought of it got
into my blood like fire, when I saw his cruel leer and heard his sneers.
. . . Later on, I thought better of it . . . calmer thoughts had got
into my brain . . . reason, sober sense. . . . I had gone back to the
presbytery, and meant to go to bed--I went out, I swear it by God that
I went out prepared to warn him, to help him if I could. The whole
village was deserted, it was the hour of supper at the barn. I heard the
church clock strike the half-hour after ten. I worked my way round to
the back of Goldstein's house and in the yard I saw Béla lying--dead."

"And you might have raised a finger to save him at first . . . and you
didn't do it."

"Not at first . . . and after that it was too late. . . ."

"You have done a big, big wrong, Andor," she said slowly.

"Wrong?" he cried, whilst once more the old spirit of defiance fired
him--the burning love in him, the wrath at seeing her unhappy. "Wrong?
Because I did not prevent one miserable brute being put out of the way
of doing further harm? By the living God, Elsa, I do not believe that it
was wrong. I didn't send him to his death, I did not see or speak to
Leopold Hirsch, I merely let Fate or God Himself work His way with him.
I did not say a word to him that might have induced him to take that
key. He picked it up from the table, and every evil thought came into
his head then and there. He didn't even care about Klara and a silly,
swaggering flirtation with her, he only wanted to insult you, to shame
you, to show you that he was the master--and meant to have his way in
all things. . . . And this he did because--bar his pride in your
beauty--he really hated you and meant to treat you ill. He meant to harm
you, Elsa--my own dear dove . . . my angel from heaven . . . for whom I
would have died, and would die to-day, if my death could bring you
happiness. . . . I let him go and Leopold Hirsch killed him . . . if he
had lived, he would have made your life one long misery. . . . Was it my
fault that Leopold Hirsch killed him?--killed him at the moment when he
was trying to do you as great harm as he could? By God, Elsa, I swear
that I don't believe it was my fault . . . it was the will of God--God
would not punish me for not interfering with His will. . . . Why, it
wouldn't be justice, Elsa . . . it wouldn't be justice."

His voice broke in one agonized sob. He had put all his heart, all his
feelings into that passionate appeal. He did not believe that he had
done wrong, he had not on his soul the sense of the brand of Cain.
Rough, untutored, a son of the soil, he saw no harm in sweeping out of
the way a noisome creature who spreads evil and misery. And Elsa's was
also a simple and untutored soul, even though in her calmer temperament
the wilder passions of men had found no echo. True and steadfast in
love, her mind was too simple to grasp at sophistry, to argue about
right or wrong; her feelings were her guide, and even while
Andor--burning with love and impatience--argued and clung desperately to
his own point of view, she felt only the desire to comfort and to
succour--above all, to love--she was just a girl--Andor's sweetheart and
not his judge. God alone was that! God would punish if He so
desired--indeed, He had punished already, for never had such sorrow
descended in Andor's heart before, of that she felt quite sure.

He became quite calm after awhile. Even his passion seemed to have died
down under the weight of this immense sorrow.

And the peace which comes from the plains when they are wrapped in the
darkness of the night descended on the humble peasant-girl's soul; she
saw things as they really were, not as men's turbulent desires would
have them be--above all, not as a woman's idealism would picture them.

She no longer had the desire to run away--and if the distant, unknown
land was to wrap and enfold her out of the ken of this real, cruel
world, then it should enfold her and Andor together, and her love would
wrap him and comfort him too.

So now--when he had finished speaking, when his fervent appeal to God
and to her had died down on his quivering lips--she came close up to him
and placed her small, cool hand upon his arm.

"Andor," she said gently; and her voice shook and was almost
undistinguishable from the sweet, soft sounds that filled the limitless
plain. "I am only an ignorant peasant-girl--you and I are only like
children, of course, beside the clever people who can argue about such
things. But this I do know, that there is no sin in the world so great
but it can be blotted out and forgiven. You may have done a big, big,
wrong, Andor--or perhaps you are not much to blame . . . I don't know
how that is . . . Pater Bonifácius will tell you, no doubt, when next
you make your confession to him. . . . But I am too ignorant to
understand . . . the plains have taught me all I know . . . and . . .
and . . . I shall always love you, Andor . . . and not judge what you
have done. . . . God will do that. . . . I can only love you. . . . That
is all!"

Her voice died away in the soughing of the wind. For a moment or two he
stood beside her--not daring to speak--or to move--or to take that cool,
little white hand in his and kiss it--for now she seemed to him more
pure than she had ever been--almost holy--like a saint--hallowed by the
perfect selflessness of her love.

And as he stood beside her--with head bent and throat choked with sobs
of infinite happiness--the darkness of the night fell wholly upon the
plain. Nothing around but just this darkness, filled with all the sounds
of hidden, pulsating life; overhead the clouds chased one another
ceaselessly and restlessly, and from far away the dull murmur of the
water came as a faint and rumbling echo.

Andor could no longer see Elsa now, not even her silhouette; but her
hand was still on his arm, and he felt the nearness of her presence, and
knew that henceforth, throughout the years that were to come, a
happiness such as he had never even dared to dream of would be his and
hers too, until the day when they would leave the beautiful, mysterious
plains for that hidden land beyond the glowing horizon, beyond the rosy
dawn and the crimson sunset.

Andor slowly fell on his knees and pressed his burning lips on the
small, white hand. Just then in the east there was a rent in the clouds,
a lining of silver appeared behind the darkness; the rent became wider
and ever wider; the silver turned to lemon-gold, and slowly,
majestically, the waning moon--honey-coloured and brilliant--emerged
triumphantly, queening it over the plain.

The silvery radiance lit up the vast, silent expanse of nothingness, the
huge dome of the sky, the limitless area of stubble and stumps of hemp
and dead sunflowers, and where the mysteries of the earth merged in
those of the sky--it touched with its subtle radiance that unknown land
on the horizon, far away, which no child of the plain has ever reached
as yet.

And from the distant village came softly sounding the tinkle of the
church bell, tolling for evening prayer.

Hand in hand, Andor and Elsa wandered back to the
village--together--hand in hand with memory--hand in hand in
never-fading love and understanding and simple trust--hand in hand upon
the bosom of the illimitable plain.



      *      *      *      *      *



Transcriber's note:

Some names were spelled inconsistently in the original text.
All occurrences of "Benko" have been corrected to "Benkó",
"Bonifacius" has been corrected to "Bonifácius", and "Hohér"
has been corrected to "Hóhér".

In addition, the following typographical errors have been
corrected.

   In Chapter XX, "violent and suddent" was changed to
   "violent and sudden".

   In Chapter XXI, "wont . . . won't you sit down?" was
   changed to "won't . . . won't you sit down?"

   In Chapter XXV, "make Andor giddy" was changed to "made
   Andor giddy".

   In Chapter XXVIII, a missing period was added after
    "quietly laid to rest".





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