On Wednesday, up there at the hilltop, at Fedémes village, a body of Polish lancers turned out in the small hours of the morning and rode forth, ammunition and all, to the training-ground. By the time the morning bell rang, the whole village was ablaze.
The lurid glare could be seen throughout the foothill district, as far as Szépasszonyfalva, or Fair Lady’s Thorpe. There, the Matyó men kept crossing themselves tirelessly, while their womenfolk – although it was only mid-week – treated the soldiers to generous dishes of stuffed cabbage, anxious to keep them in the village. The village lads, however, their spirits sagging whenever the soldiers roistered at the inn, sneaked out and trudged home.
The villagers held that discretion was the better part of valour and that, rather than pay the price of insubordination, it was wiser to resign themselves to their fate. Besides, life had been like this ever since the 1870s, and they had grown accustomed to it. The same two companies of the same Hussar regiment had been stationed in their midst, all those long years.
The rank and file – mostly Ruthenians with only about one-fourth from the home country – were relieved by fresh levies every three years, but these changes had no effect on the lives of the villagers.
Throughout the valley the grass grew as fine as silk; yet the peasants’ horses were hidebound, listless and bony, for the hussars took away the best, most fragrant hay and fed it to the cavalry horses before the very eyes of the inhabitants. They broke into the barns in broad daylight, and woe to any Matyó who dared protest. Young Kispatkóssy tried it once… On the wooden cross above his grave, there is a fine verse about his young life and grievous end. Perhaps it has worn off by now, but the village folk still remember it.
The pick of everything in cottage and stable was grabbed by those greedy locusts. Even the lads from the home country had quite fallen into their evil habits. There was no remedy, no person to complain to. The young men in the village, scorned and humbled, went about chanting the most innocent of folk-tunes, as sadly as if it were a dirge:
“Who owns this house here that I see?
Could it Master János be?
And that house yonder that I see?
András would its master be.”
The old women shed many a tear. But the officers – none of them higher ranking than captain – had picked up a smattering of Hungarian; and their laughter was as unfeeling as the laments of the peasants were bitter. And what else could one do in that place but laugh and weep?
What a foul hole, that village! The officers were bored to death, finding relief only in an occasional prank. At night, they would serenade all and sundry; the Jew Sam’s wife, the Paklincs girls, any women that was handy. So far, they had spared only the doctor’s wife, without having any particular reason for this omission.
That night the officers could get no sleep because of the autoda-fé at Fedémes. They did not disperse until shortly before dawn. Baron Brandel – the Lieutenant – would not budge without company, so he took the gipsy musicians and led them straight to the doctor’s house. The band struck up. The Baron sang the serenade to its accompaniment and raised his voice to a furious pitch when the doctor’s head appeared in the window.
“Go away!” said the doctor curtly.
“Stay!” the Lieutenant commanded.
The shutters swung to, and a few minutes later the doctor stood facing the soldier. “Herr Baron, may I have a word with you?”
The Lieutenant laughed and waved the gipsies away. Then he placed his hand upon the hilt of his sword and said: “At your service.”
Not a soul was near them. It was pitch dark. The doctor spoke up: “Herr Baron, you are not acquainted with my family, I presume.”
“To what, then, do we owe this unusual honour?”
“I do as I wish.”
A resounding slap shattered the stillness. The officer clapped his hand to his sword. The doctor drew a revolver from his pocket. “Step closer!”
Brandishing his sword and spitting invective, the officer made four passes at him. But each time he approached his opponent and saw death staring at him out of the barrel of that small revolver, his arms and lips went dead. He tried to work himself into a frenzy, but without success; and his blood froze when his last charge brought a bullet whizzing past his neck, singeing his whiskers.
Cursing still, but trembling, he staggered to his billet. He found his Hungarian batman lying as usual at his door. He kicked the man in the hip. Samu Kaál sprang to his feet. “Sir!” He was told to fetch wine from the cellar. He lit the lamp and placed the beverage on the table.
“Be off!” said the officer. Samu Kaál started towards the door. Moved by a sudden thought, the baron seized his batman’s hand. “Stay here,” he said gently. He stepped up to the table, poured wine into two glasses and gave one to the soldier. “Have a drink.”
Samu Kaál’s broad Matyó features now contracted with anxiety, now expanded in elation. They drank…
At three o’clock in the morning the doctor got into his carriage, to visit his patients. The driver said: “Gee-up!” Suddenly, behind him, his master tumbled out of the carriage. A bullet, fired from a hussar carbine, had pierced his heart. Behind the carriage, a hussar was spotted behind some elder-bushes, by vegetable-women going early to market. “Samu Kaál! What’ve you done?…” they shouted after the hussar, who had thrown away his weapon and was running towards the river bank.
Samu Kaál was taken to brigade headquarters at Miskolc. On the way there, he kept silent between his escorts and smiled to himself. “The idiots,” he thought, “they think they’re taking me to my death.”
He laughed when they tried to comfort him: “Don’t worry, Samu, you’re not going to get bumped off for that.”
“Why should I worry?” he answered.
The escorts, itching to know, went on asking: “Whatever made you do it, Samu Kaál?” But he kept his thin lips tightly pressed, raised his sparse, yellow eyebrows, and said nothing. Nor could they elicit a word from him in prison. The provost marshal and the examining magistrate – a Major – did their best to make him talk, but they were wasting their time: Samu Kaál maintained a facetious look and snickered slyly, at times even shooting a mischievous glance at the Major as if to say: “Alright, alright, you and I know better.”
Days and weeks went by. Szépasszonyfalva was not far away, and one day the Lieutenant entered Samu’s cell. What joy this visit brought him! He wiped his streaming rabbit’s eyes with his fists, and even the old provost marshal was close to crying. Ah, the Herr Offizier was a good soul, bless him!
The ward left officer and batman to themselves. Through the door he overheard the officer saying soothing words to the Matyó lad, and the latter supplicating his master: “Oh, please, Sir, you won’t let me down, Sir, will you?”
The day after, Samu Kaál declared that he wished to confess. And he did confess. “It was on Tuesday… I poked fun at his horse… He struck me with his whip… ‘You’ll die for this,’ I swore…”
Upon this, the investigation was wound up. Sentence followed very soon. The day before the judgement was pronounced Samu’s mother brought her son clean linen and some food. She was admitted to his cell, so they might cry out their hearts together. And the old woman’s weeping expressed the grief of a whole village. Her son comforted her with speech so strange, one might think the poor lad was out of his mind. “That bit o’ land of Ferus Bándi’s that lies next to ours, is it still to be had?” he asked his mother, slipping his hand into the pocket of his vest as if he meant to produce the sum. He wanted to say a good deal more, and he did drop a few words about his master and that he, Samu, might be back home sooner than the others. Yet it was all so confused that his old mother sank deeper and deeper into despair, as she listened to him.
Samu Kaál was whistling a tune when they brought him before the court. His fresh clothes, clean linen and polished boots, matched his beaming countenance and big jug-ears; he was bright and shining like the cockade on his shako. He sprang to attention in so soldierly a fashion that the presiding Colonel almost looked gratified. “That’s the spirit, my man!” the mute look of Samu’s master seemed to say in encouragement. The Lieutenant was a member of the tribunal, his figure, smart as usual, but his cheeks pale as never before.
Samu Kaál was sentenced to death: for treacherously attacking and murdering a man, he was to be hanged by the neck…
Suddenly, the batman’s tanned face became clouded, but it soon brightened again. He saluted smartly, and was led away.In the army, retribution does not tarry long, nor was it allowed to do so at the brigade jail. Samu was divested of his uniform and his peasant garb returned to him. Oh, how happy he was to get them back! In one of the pockets of his short coat he found two rosemaries. Dry and withered though they had become, still, there they lay where he had stuck them two years ago. Tears fell from his eyes at last. So he would go home, after all. It was true then, God bless his master!…
He seized and fervently kissed the hand of the Lieutenant, who even now deigned to visit his batman. “Be sensible, man! Keep your wits together and have no fear!” said the officer, and walked out of the condemned cell abandoning the prisoner to his solitude.
Samu Kaál repeated the words to his mother: “Be sensible, mother! Keep your wits together and have no fear!” The old woman was already beyond fear. She hardly knew where or who she was and whether to believe in God. Her entire body trembled.
Dawn came, a bright, snow-bound winter dawn. Through the window of his cell Samu Kaál could see the whole prison-yard: it was full of cord wood, only one slender beam by the wall stretched into the air. Some civilians were busily doing something with it. Samu Kaál stared and stared. “What a devil of a show they’re putting up,” he thought. All the same, he felt a cold shiver running down his spine. He tried to reassure himself. Perhaps he was hungry? He took some food. Then he lit a cigar (his master had sent it in for him). He wasn’t halfway through before they snatched it out of his mouth. More than half of it unsmoked! And how good it had tasted! He was sorry to have to stop smoking it, and placed it on the shelf.
He was told to say his prayers; then he was led out. There in the yard his company stood arrayed in full uniform. He nodded in their direction and looked at them out of the corner of his eye. He wished he could have said something to hearten them: “Have no fear, boys!” He shuddered slightly, but wasn’t afraid. Why should he be? Wasn’t his master, that strapping man, that all-powerful officer, standing there, at the head of his company? Dressed in his gold fringed uniform and sporting a gleaming medal on his breast, he looked like a little god. Samu Kaál couldn’t take his eyes off him. He derived trust and courage and self-assurance from that sallow face and that twirled moustache.
With a proud bearing, almost haughtily, he marched towards the gallows. He was turned about to face the company. The Major who had headed the court martial now mumbled something, but Samu Kaál paid no heed to what he said. He was looking at his master. The Lieutenant – face waxy like a corpse’s, but chest thrown out like a true hussar’s – looked back at him. “Be sensible… Have no fear!”
The hangman’s assistants seized him. A yell burst from Samu Kaál: “Herr Leutnant, stop them…”
He could say no more. It had been a mere jest, and it was over now. The officer gave the order for prayer.