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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Poor Plutocrats - Chapter 12. The Soirees At Arad
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The Poor Plutocrats - Chapter 12. The Soirees At Arad Post by :Tennyson Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :3288

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The Poor Plutocrats - Chapter 12. The Soirees At Arad

CHAPTER XII. THE SOIREES AT ARAD

Despite his misgivings, Count Kengyelesy succeeded in reaching his home at Arad without being robbed by Fatia Negra.

During the evenings of his visit at Hidvar he had won back everything which he had lost on the occasion of his friend Hatszegi's visit at Kengyelesy, and in the joy of his heart he gave his countess _carte blanche in the matter of entertaining her friends and opened his halls freely to the elegant world of Arad.

For the society of Arad is distinctly elegant. Excepting Pest, there is no other place in Hungary where the aristocratic element is so strongly represented. Nay, it has this advantage over Pest that its society does not scatter as the seasons change. Such pleasure-resorts as Csako, Menes, Magyarat and Vilagos and the castles of the magnates residing on the circumjacent _puszta are all of a heap, so to speak, around Arad; so that there is no occasion for acquaintances to separate in spring or autumn; wherefore to all those who would devote themselves uninterruptedly to social joys, Arad is a veritable Eldorado.

There was no need to offer the Countess Kengyelesy such an opportunity twice,--the very next day the round of visiting began. All the notabilities of the higher circles got themselves introduced to her ladyship by mutual friends, and the lesser fry, whom nobody knew, were introduced to her by the count himself. Amongst those who came from afar was a young man from Pest who had an official post in the county, a rare distinction in those days, who was much praised for his culture and who had spoken once or twice very sensibly at Quarter Sessions,--a certain Szilard Vamhidy. But what interested the ladies in the young man far more than his official orations was the rumour connecting his name with a romantic attachment he was said to have had with the daughter of a wealthy merchant of Pest. The young man, being disappointed in his love, had resolved to kill himself, and had persuaded the girl to do likewise at the same time. Only with difficulty had they been snatched from the threshold of death. Subsequently, on account of this very thing, the girl had been compelled to become the wife of the wealthy Hatszegi.

The countess quickly made up her mind that such a young man as this was an indispensable acquaintance. What! Henrietta's ideal, with whom she had been in love and who would have gladly embraced death with her! Here indeed was a rare species, especially in these modern days, which deserved to be exhibited; and she gave her husband no rest till he had promised to introduce the young man to her. To this end it was necessary that he should first of all make the young man's acquaintance himself, but this was an easy matter. The deputy Lord-lieutenant of the county knew them both and at his house they learnt to know each other. And Count Kengyelesy was one of those men whom it is impossible to avoid when once you have made his acquaintance. It was not very long, therefore, before he took his new friend, absolutely under his protection and hauled him off to his wife.

The usual stiffness of a first introduction was speedily broken down by the quaint conceits of the count.

The countess had donned a flowing antique _moire dress and wore her hair in long English curls to match.

"Come now, friend Szilard!" cried the count, "what do you say? this dress and that _coiffure hardly suit the countess's style of face--eh?"

Many a worthy young man would have been plunged into confusion by such a silly question, but our Szilard's eternally composed countenance was not ruffled for an instant.

"Everything becomes the countess," he replied; "but I know of something which is still more charming and would make any fair woman still more beautiful."

"Really! You make me quite curious," said the countess.

"Why, Szilard, you a connoisseur!--you surprise me!" cried the count.

"I mean those blue stuff gowns with white spots, which lend quite a peculiar charm to our women, especially if you set it off with an old-fashioned _csipkekoeto_."(29)

(Footnote 29: A Hungarian headdress made of black lace. The dress suggested was also of native Hungarian manufacture worn at one time by the greatest ladies.)

At the very next _soiree the Countess Kengyelesy was attired in one of these blue stuff gowns with white spots, of home manufacture, and with a black lace head-dress--exactly as Szilard had described it to her.

"My dear friend, be so good as to look there!" said the count appropriating Szilard while he was still only half through the doorway. "There she is costumed from head to foot exactly as you advised. Ah! I pity you. You are already in the toils."

Szilard hastened at once to greet the countess, who treated the handsome young fellow with marked distinction all through the evening. Indeed she made no secret of it.

Three days later Szilard was bound, by custom to pay a complimentary visit upon the Countess. He purposely chose an hour when he knew she would not be at home, and left his card, but the same evening he encountered her at the theatre. It was in the entrance hall, where she was waiting for her carriage, and till it drove up Szilard could not very well leave her.

"Ah, ah! my honoured friend," cried the countess archly, "this won't do. You wait till I am not at home, and then you go and leave your card upon me as a token of respect. But I don't mean to let you off so easily. I have got a lot to say to you which I am determined you shall listen to. You must therefore promise to come to my house at twelve o'clock to-morrow, or else I shall astonish the world by inviting you to come along with me this instant in my carriage."

A man, in another mood, could scarcely have resisted the temptation of replying that he would be delighted if the countess put her threat into execution then and there, even at the risk of astonishing the world. Szilard merely looked grave and said that he would be happy to pay his respects to the countess at twelve on the morrow.

He went accordingly. His pulses beat no more quickly than usual as he entered the countess's private apartment, although she gave the footman to understand in a low voice that she would be at home to nobody else, and invited the young man to sit down close beside her, face to face.

The countess was a beautiful woman, and she possessed the art of dressing beautifully likewise. The countess had beautiful eyes and she could smile beautifully with them, too. The countess had an extremely pretty mouth, and when she spoke it was prettier still, for she had a witty way with her. The danger of the situation was very appreciable.

"My dear, good Szilard," began the countess, with that light, natural _naivete which so easily disarms the strongest of us, "do not take it ill of me if I speak to you confidentially. The world will very soon be saying that you are in love with me and I with you. I shall not believe the former and you will not believe the latter. Let the world say what it likes. I have a real blessing of a husband, whom it would be a shame to offend, and you have quite other ideas. I know what they are. Don't be angry, don't frown! I am not exacting. I don't want to fetch you away from other people. I will not ask where you have buried your treasures. I will merely say to you that I know you have treasures and that they are buried. Is it not so? You need not be afraid of me."

Szilard was a little taken aback by this unexpected turn. Could it be sheer curiosity, he thought?

"I have nothing to be afraid of, countess," remarked Szilard, smiling, "I have no buried secrets. I was a young man once, that is all. I have had my foolish illusions, like other people, and like other people I have cured myself of them."

"Nay, nay, sir, now you are not quite sticking to the truth; you are _not cured of them. But before I go any further let me tell you that all this is not mere feminine curiosity on my part. I want you to trust me and I will trust you equally. Believe me when I say that if I love to make fun of empty-headed noodles, I can always respect a good heart because it is a rarity. The lady I want to speak to you about is my dear friend and she is very, very unhappy."

Szilard was bound to believe that this was true, for tear-drops sparkled in the countess's eyes.

"Is it my fault?" he asked bitterly.

"It is neither your fault nor hers. I know that as a fact. The cause of it all is money, the thirst for money. There is not a more miserable creature in the wide world than the daughter of a rich man. But that is the least of her misfortunes. They married her to a man who did not love her, who only took her because her grandfather was a millionaire. Her grandfather frightened her into the match by threatening her with his curse and now, when she has become the wife of this man who does not even feel friendship for her, I hear that this same old grandfather has made another will depriving her of everything."

Szilard's lips trembled at these words.

"You can imagine what will be the result. This young woman loves not and is not loved. They gave her away to an Oriental nabob who, imagining his wife to be wealthy, scatters his money like a prince. And now this man has suddenly been startled by the report that his wife has absolutely nothing!--do you know the meaning of the expression: bread of charity?"

"I have heard the expression, but the bread itself I have never tasted."

"Then you can have no idea what that sort of bread is like which a man gives to the wife whom he finds to be poor, when he fancied her to be rich--oh! that sort of bread is very, very bitter!"

Ah! thought Szilard, the bread that _I offered her was only dry--not bitter.

"I can tell you on very good authority," resumed the countess, "that the baron's conduct towards his wife has completely changed since he discovered that she has been disinherited. He had lost heavily at cards when the news first reached him, and he took no pains to conceal his ill-humour from his wife in consequence. The poor of the district had got to regard Henrietta as their ministering angel because of her labours of love among them, but now she can play the part of lady bountiful no longer. She has to shut her door in the faces of her poor petitioners, for her husband will not allow any unnecessary expense. Nay, more, they say that Hatszegi now keeps his wife's private jewels under lock and key to prevent her from pawning them and relieving the needs of the poor with the proceeds, as she was wont to do, and only brings them out on state occasions when he compels her to pile them all on her person. Isn't that a humiliation for a woman?"

"If only you had become mine," Szilard mentally apostrophized poor Henrietta, "you would now have had a cosey little chimney-corner, and a nice little room all to yourself; and though I could not have bought you jewels, the best of every morsel of food we shared together would always have been yours."

"And," pursued the countess, "most degrading experience of all, Hatszegi no longer attempts to conceal from his wife his outrageous _liaisons with pretty peasant women. The thing has long been a byeword, though his wife knew nothing of it--but she knows it now. Nor is this all, my dear Vamhidy. Poor Henrietta's heart is suffering from another sorrow which she feels all the more keenly because it smarts unceasingly. Her young brother, Koloman, has suddenly disappeared from Pest and left no trace behind him. They say all sorts of things about him, which I do not care about telling you, but most of them are bad enough. On the news reaching Henrietta, she asked her husband to make enquiries as to the cause of Koloman's disappearance. Hatszegi wrote to his agent and received an answer which he will not show to Henrietta on any consideration; nay, more, he commanded his wife never to mention Koloman's name before him again. The poor woman is naturally in despair. She cannot conceive why the cause of her brother's disappearance should be hidden from her. And now I am coming to the end and aim of all this rigmarole. Henrietta believes, and I am likewise convinced of it, that if her brother be alive, there is only one person in the world whom he will try and seek out and that is yourself."

"Poor lad! he loved me much," sighed Szilard.

"And now you understand what I am driving at, don't you? If anybody can find out the whereabouts of Henrietta's brother and the real reason why he fled from his relations at Pest and took refuge neither with his aunt, Madame Langai, who, I hear, has taken his part all through, nor yet with his sister, it is most certainly you. This is no lawyer's business, for a lawyer would set about it too gingerly. Here sympathy and chivalry are before all other things necessary, and if the husband declines this noble task, we have nobody to turn to except--the man who has been sacrificed."

Szilard bit his lips to prevent the tears from coming. Who could ever have thought that so frivolous a woman would have had so much feeling for her friend? Then he rose, bowed and curtly informed the countess that he would undertake the commission.

The countess pressed his hand affectionately: "And keep me informed of everything," said she, "for I am the common post between you two."

Szilard thanked the countess and withdrew. He pondered the matter carefully till the evening, and by that time he had a plan all ready in his head.

For a whole week after this, nothing was to be seen of Vamhidy. Count Kengyelesy sought him everywhere and could find him nowhere. Every day he asked his countess what she had done with the young man.

Ten days after the first _soiree the date for another had been fixed. Szilard did not appear even at this. Kengyelesy hunted for him from pillar to post, but could not discover what had become of him. Nobody had heard anything of him.

"He has poisoned himself," said Kengyelesy at last to a group of his sporting friends. "It is quite plain to me. When a fellow has got that sort of thing into his head once, he will try it again and again. I wash my hands of the business, it is all the fault of the countess. Why does she play her tricks with such people? No doubt he has swallowed poison and then crawled away into some nook or corner of a forest. In a month or two, I suppose, we shall come upon him unexpectedly."

"Whom shall we come upon unexpectedly?" cried a voice behind his back. He looked around and there was the long lost Szilard.

"Oh, there you are, eh? What have you been doing with yourself all this time? Come along with me--and Heaven help you!--I will take you to my wife. Poor young chap! I thought you had already had enough of it and made away with yourself in consequence."

Then he drew his arm through Szilard's and tripped off to the countess. "Here he is!" he cried. "We have found him, do not abandon yourself to despair on his account. Be so good as to sit down beside him!--here's a chair! I'll take care nobody disturbs you!"

The countess pressed Szilard's hand and made a sign to him to remain.

"I have just arrived from Pest," said Szilard.

"Really! Well?"

"I have found out everything, or rather, I should say, a good deal."

"Do pray tell me at once. All the people are dancing, they will take no notice of us."

"Ever since old Lapussa's death," began Szilard, "for he died soon after he had altered his will, all the members of his family have been at bitter variance. Madame Langai, the old man's widowed daughter, disputes the validity of the last will--whereby Mr. John Lapussa becomes heir to the exclusion of everybody else, and has instituted legal proceedings to upset it. Madame Langai seeks to prove that old Lapussa was _non compos mentis when he disinherited the other members of his family, and she also maintains, that the old fellow had no reason whatever for hating his grandchildren and reducing them to beggary as he has done. On the other hand, Mr. John maintains that his dear father had excellent reasons for detesting his grandchildren because the Baroness Hatszegi has never written a letter to her grandfather since her marriage and both she and her husband have expressed themselves, at home, in the most disrespectful terms imaginable concerning the old gentleman, even giving it to be understood that they would be very glad if they had not to wait too long for the curtain to fall on the fifth act of his life's drama. He calls as his witness one Margari, who was formerly old Lapussa's reader before the girl was married, and since then has been compelled to act as secretary to Hatszegi, or rather as a spy upon him. This fellow, who is now the mere tool of Mr. John, is quite prepared to retail all sorts of horrors about the Hatszegis. As to the other grandchild, the boy Koloman I mean, his uncle has saddled him with a terrible charge. He has produced a bill for 40,000 florins which he accuses the lad of forging in the name of his sister, the Baroness Hatszegi."

"Ah!" exclaimed the countess in an incredulous voice.

"The thing is ridiculously incredible, I know, yet there the bill is; I have seen it, for it has been sequestered by the Court. It is obviously in the youth's handwriting as also is the very bad imitation of his sister's signature. In connection therewith is the fact of the youth's sudden disappearance (and every attempt to trace his whereabouts has failed), for, on the very day when the subject of the bill was first broached, he vanished from his college, and apparently he had been preparing for flight some time before."

"But what could have induced a mere child to do such a thing, he is scarcely thirteen years old?"

"He was always somewhat flighty by nature, though that, of course, is not sufficient to explain how he came to forge his sister's name on a draft for 40,000 florins."

"But why will not the baron tell his wife all about it?"

"Does not your ladyship see?--It is quite plain to me. Hatszegi understands his wife thoroughly. He feels certain that as soon as the baroness hears of what her brother is accused, she would not hesitate a moment to acknowledge the forged signature as really her own."

"True, true. And then I suppose her brother could be saved."

"Completely."

"And then, I suppose, she would have to pay the money?"

"Either pay it or be sued for it."

"Poor woman! I know she has no money. A most awkward position, most awkward. But it does not matter; if her jewels are under lock and key, nobody guards mine."

At these words which came straight from the best of hearts, Szilard could not restrain himself from impressing a burning kiss on the countess's hand so affected was he by this outburst of generosity.

"Ah, ha!" cackled the count behind his back, "so we have got as far as that already, eh! Capital, capital, upon my word! Nay, nay, my young friend, don't be afraid of me. Do not put yourself out in the least on my account! God bless you, my boy!"

"To-morrow, we'll plan it all out, I'll be waiting for you at one o'clock," whispered the countess to Szilard, "now I must go, the cotillion is beginning."

"Don't you dance then?" enquired the count of Szilard. "Nonsense! they'll say you are mourning somebody. Thank God, old Lapussa was not _your father-in-law, but Hatszegi's. It is for him to pull a long face, but you go and dance!"

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