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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Poor Plutocrats - Chapter 2. A New Mode Of Duelling
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The Poor Plutocrats - Chapter 2. A New Mode Of Duelling Post by :Privlist Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :912

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The Poor Plutocrats - Chapter 2. A New Mode Of Duelling

CHAPTER II. A NEW MODE OF DUELLING

Old Lapussa always liked to have under his eye, night and day, some one or other whom he could plague and worry. Till eight o'clock every evening he was fully occupied in tormenting the whole family. Then Madame Langai went to the theatre and Henrietta and the governess had to sit down at the piano in the large drawing-room till it was time to put the child to bed. But when Clementina and the domestics had had supper and there was no longer anybody else with him, the turn of the night nurse began.

The duties of a night nurse are never very enviable or diverting at the best of times, yet penal servitude for life was a fate almost preferable to being the nocturnal guardian of old Demetrius Lapussa. The unhappy wretch who was burdened with this heavy charge had to sit at Mr. Lapussa's bed from nine o'clock at night till early the following morning and read aloud to him all sorts of things the whole time. Old Demetrius was a very bad sleeper. The whole night long he scarcely slept more than an hour at a time. His eyes would only close when the droaning voice of some one reading aloud made his head dizzy, and then he would doze off for a short time. But at the slightest pause he would instantly awake and angrily ask the reader why he left off, and urge him on again.

The reader in question was a student more than fifty years old, who, time out of mind, had been making a living by fair-copying all sorts of difficult manuscripts. He was an honest, simple creature who, in his time, had tried hard to push his way into every conceivable business and profession without ever succeeding till, at last, when he was well over fifty, he was fortunate enough to fall in with an editor who happened to know that Demetrius Lapussa wanted a reader, and recommended the poor devil for the post. He knew Hungarian, Latin, and Slovack well enough to mix them all up together; German he could read, though he did not understand it, but this was not necessary, for he was not expected to read for his own edification.

This worthy man, then, grew prematurely old in reading, year out year in, aloud to Mr. Demetrius, one after another, all the German translations of French novels procurable at Robert Lempel's circulating library without understanding a single word of them. Mr. Demetrius had, naturally, no library of his own, for reading to him, in his condition, was pretty much the same as medicine, and who would ever think of keeping a dispensary on his own premises? I may add that the reader received free board and lodging and ten florins a month pocket-money for his services.

On that particular night when Mr. John flung out of the house in such a violent rage, Mr. Demetrius was particularly sleepless. I know not whether Monte Cristo, the first volume of which honest Margari happened to be reading just then, was the cause of this, or whether it was due to the old man's nervousness about the terrible things John was likely to do, but the fact remains that poor Margari on this occasion got no respite from his labours. At other times Margari did manage to get a little relief. Whenever he observed that Mr. Demetrius was beginning to draw longer breaths than usual he would let his head sink down on his book and fall asleep immediately till the awakened tyrant roused him out of his slumbers and made him go on again. But now he was not suffered to have a moment's peace.

Monte Cristo had already been sitting in his dungeon for some time when Madame Langai's carriage returned from the theatre. Then Mr. Demetrius rang up the porters to inquire whether Mr. John had also returned home. No, was the answer. At eleven o'clock Mr. John had still not returned. Meanwhile Monte Cristo's neighbour had traced the figure on the floor of the dungeon. Mr. Demetrius here demanded a fuller explanation of the circumstances. "How was that, Margari?" he enquired.

"I humbly beg your honour's pardon, but I don't understand."

"Very well, proceed!"

Every time a door below was opened or shut, Mr. Demetrius rang up the porter to enquire whether Mr. John had come in, to the intense aggravation of the porter, who appeared in the door of the saloon with a surlier expression and his hair more and more ruffled on each occasion, inwardly cursing the fool of a student who had not even wit enough to send an old man asleep, and envying the other servants who at least were able to sleep at night without interruption.

And still Margari went on reading.

By this time Monte Cristo had had himself sewn up in a sack and flung into the sea as a corpse.

"Would you have dared to have that done to you, Margari?" interrupted Mr. Demetrius.

"If I had a lot of money I might, begging your honour's pardon, but a poor devil like me is only too glad to live at any price," replied Margari, whose answer naturally had no relation whatever to the text, not a word of which he understood.

"You are a simple fellow, Margari; but go on, go on!"

Margari gaped violently, he would have liked to have stretched himself too, but he bethought him in time that his coat had already burst beneath his armpits, and he had no wish to make the rent still larger, so he let it alone and proceeded with his bitter labour.

By the time Monte Cristo had swum back to dry land, Margari's eyelids were almost glued to his eyes and still the old gentleman showed no sign of drowsiness. Mr. John's threat had kept Mr. Demetrius awake all night, and consequently had kept poor Margari awake too. Once or twice an unusually interesting episode excited the old man's attention, and for the time he forgot all about John's duel--for example, when Monte Cristo discovered the enormous treasure on the island--and he would then rouse up Margari and make him go and find a map and point out the exact position of Monte Cristo's island. Margari searched every corner of the sea for it, and at last looked for it on the dry land also without finding it. Tiring at length with the fruitless search he proposed, as the best way out of the difficulty, that he should write on the afternoon of the following day to Monsieur Alexander Dumas himself to explain to his honour where the island used to be and whether it still existed.

"What a blockhead you are," said the old man, "but go on, go on!"

Margari gave a great sigh and looked at the clock on the wall, but, alas! it was still a long way from six o'clock. At last, however, while he was still reading, the clock _did strike six. Margari instantly stood up in the middle of a sentence, marked the passage with his thumb-nail so as to know at what word to begin again on the following evening, turned down the leaf and closed the book.

"Well! is that the end of it?" enquired Mr. Demetrius in angry amazement.

"I humbly beg your honour's pardon," said Margari with meek intrepidity, "there's nothing about reading _after six in our agreement"--and off he went. Mr. Demetrius thereupon flew into a violent rage, cursed and swore, vowed that he would dismiss his reader on the spot, and as the morning grew lighter fell into a deep, death-like, narcotic sleep from which he would not have awakened if the house had come tumbling about his ears. When he did awake, about ten o'clock, his first care was to make enquiries about Mr. John. Then he sent the porter to the police station to inform the authorities that his son and Mr. Hatszegi, who were both staying at the Queen of England inn, were going to fight a duel, which should be prevented at all hazards. A police constable, at this announcement, flung himself into a hackney-coach and set off at full speed to make enquiries. Half an hour later a heyduke was sent back to the porter to tell him that either the whole affair must be a hoax, as nothing was known of a duel, or else that the two combatants must already be dead and buried, as not a word could be heard of either of them. Luckily, towards the afternoon, Mr. John himself arrived in a somewhat dazed condition, like one who has been up drinking all night. The members of the family were all sitting together as usual in Mr. Demetrius's room, listening in silence to his heckling, when the tidings of Mr. John's arrival reached him. Demetrius immediately summoned him. He sent back word at first that he was lying down to try to sleep, which was an absurd excuse for even the richest man to give in the forenoon; on being summoned a second time he threatened to box the porter's ears; only the third time, when Clementina was sent with the message that if he did not come at once, his sick father would come and fetch him, did he respond to the call and appear before them in a pet.

"Well, thou bloodthirsty man, what has happened? What was the end of it?"

"What has happened?" repeated John with monstrously dilated eyes. "What marvel do you expect me to relate?"

"Clementina, Miss Kleary, Henrietta, retire," cried the old man; "retire, go into the next room. These are not the sort of things that children should hear."

When they had all withdrawn except Madame Langai, Demetrius again questioned his son: "Now then, what about this affair, this _rencontre with Hatszegi; did you challenge him, did you meet him?"

"Eh? Oh--yes! Naturally. Of course I sought him out, I have only just come from him. We have been making a night of it together at the Queen of England. I can honestly say that he is a splendid fellow, a gallant, charming gentleman. He has really noble qualities. I am going to bring him here this afternoon. You shall all see him. Even you will like him, Matilda. But now, adieu, I must really have a little sleep, we were drinking champagne together all night. Oh, he is a magnificent, a truly magnificent character."

Mr. Demetrius said not a word in reply, but he compressed his thin lips and wagged his head a good deal. Nobody made any observation. Mr. John was allowed to go to bed according to his desire. A little time after he had withdrawn, however, the old man said to Madame Langai: "What are you doing Matilda?"

"I am trying to guess a rebus which has just appeared in 'The Iris.'"

"Don't you think that what John has just said is rather odd?"

"I have not troubled my head about it one way or the other."

"I can see through it though. John wants to pay off Hatszegi in his own coin. He has invited him here this afternoon in order to keep him waiting in the ante-chamber, and then send him word that he can't see him till to-morrow. Oh! Jack is a sly lad, a very sly lad, but I can see through him. I can see through him."

* * * * *

Mr. John passed the whole afternoon in his father's room; he did not even go to his club. No doubt he was awaiting his opportunity for revenge. He amused himself by sitting down beside his niece, stroking her hand, admiring the whiteness of her skin, and, drawing the governess into the conversation, enquired how Henrietta was getting on with her studies, whether she had still much to learn in English and French, and whether she was not, by this time, quite a virtuoso at the piano. He insinuated at the same time that it would be just as well, perhaps, if she made haste to learn all that was necessary as soon as possible, because she was no longer a child, and when once a woman is married she has not very much time for study.

"By the way, Henrietta," he added suddenly, "have you chosen a lover yet?"

Henrietta was too much afraid of him even to blush at this question, she only glanced at him with timid, suspicious eyes and said nothing.

"Don't be afraid, sisterkin," continued Mr. John encouragingly. "I'll bring you such a nice bridegroom that even your grandpapa, when he sees him, will snatch up his crutches in order to go and meet him half-way." Here the old man growled something which John smothered with a laugh. "Yes, and if he won't give you up we'll carry you off by force."

Henrietta shuddered once or twice at her uncle's blandishments, like one who has to swallow a loathsome medicine and has caught a whiff of it beforehand.

The porter interrupted this cheerful family chat by announcing that his lordship Baron Hatszegi wished to pay his respects to Mr. Lapussa.

Mr. Demetrius immediately raised himself on his elbows to read from Mr. John's features what he was going to do. Would he tell the lacqueys to turn Hatszegi out of the house? or would he send him word to wait in the ante-chamber, as he himself had waited at Hatszegi's, and then put him off till the morrow? Oh! John would be sure to do something of the sort, for a very proud fellow was John.

But, so far from doing any of these things, Mr. John rushed to the door to meet the arriving guest and greeted him aloud from afar in the most obliging, not to say obsequious, terms, bidding him come in without ceremony and not make a stranger of himself. And with that he passed his arm through the arm of his distinguished guest and, radiant with joy, drew him into the midst of the domestic sanctum sanctorum and presenting him in a voice that trembled with emotion: "His lordship, Baron Leonard Hatszegi, my very dear friend!"

And then he was guilty of the impropriety of introducing his guest first of all to his father and his niece, simply because they happened to be the nearest, only afterward he bethought him of turning towards Matilda to introduce her, whereupon Matilda's face assumed a stony expression like that of the marble maiden in Zampa, to the great confusion of John, who felt bound to enquire in a half-whisper: "Why, what's the matter?"

"You dolt," she whispered back, "have you not learnt yet that the lady of the house should be introduced to her guests not last, but first?"

John's first impulse was to be shocked, his second was to be furious, but finally he thought it best to turn with a smile to Baron Hatszegi, who courteously helped him out of his embarrassment by observing: "It is my privilege to be able to greet your ladyship as an old acquaintance already. Many a time have I had the opportunity of secretly admiring you in your box at the theatre."

"Pray be seated, sir...!"

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