Géza Csáth ~ The Red-Haired Girl

DGG fur DMdJThe stories in this lovely picture-book were written by daddy Andersen, and only well-behaved children are allowed to read them. That’s what makes this book different from all others which Santa Claus brings even for naughty little boys when they haven’t been particularly bad. But Andersen’s book is only for good children, and when they behave badly, it is taken away from them until they have mended their ways. So bear that in mind!”

I was six years old, when my father told me this one Christmas Eve. He spoke seriously, but without frowning, and looked straight into my eyes, while I stroked his cheek. The barber had been there that afternoon; and I thought how queer it was to have so young a father.

My parents were playing cards with my grandparents who had come for a visit. My sister Terka’s small fist was filled with bright gold coins. My younger brother, Gudi, was tucking away six oranges and building three houses with his new building blocks. And I lay stretched out full-length on the drawing room settee reading the Andersen book until it was time to go to bed, when I put it under my pillow.

This was how my friendship with Andersen began. After that the book lay beneath my pillow every night, for I never went to bed without it. My father did not confiscate it more than two or three times, but he always returned it when I went to bed, as I could not go to sleep without it. I can still remember the occasions when the book was taken from me. The first time was, when I climbed to the top of the chicken coop and broke the roof in, the second when I refused to eat my tomato soup, and the third, when I cut all the roses in our garden and scattered them on the bed of red-haired Eszti, my younger brother’s nurse. This time it was grandpa who insisted on my being chastised, as it was always he who cut the roses.

I had known well in advance that I would have to pay for this, but Eszti was such a lovely girl! She did not wear stiff skirts that smelt of starch as did the cook or the chambermaid, and her clothes were deliciously soft. Her laughter, too, had such a charming ring in it. She also was fond of Andersen’s stories, and enjoyed my reading them out to her. Her favourite tale was that of the Snow Queen, and we often read it. The one about the Red Slippers was not to her taste. I could detect no other reason for her dislike than her belief that she resembled its heroine, the beautiful Catherine, who suffered so terribly for her vanity. I, therefore, ceased to annoy her with the tale of the Red Slippers and read it only when I was alone. But every time I did so, I had the feeling that the vain and lovely Catherine was actually Eszti. And when I reached the point in the story, where the executioner cuts off beautiful Catherine’s feet and the red slippers go on dancing, I closed my eyes and fancied that I saw the feet, Eszti’s blood-stained feet, dancing towards the forest. That is why I read the story over and over again.

One night, I dreamed of the Dauntless Tin Soldier, probably because the book, as usual, was lying beneath my pillow. The little dancer in my dream was Eszti, and I was the tin soldier. At the end of the tale both the little dancer and the tin soldier are burned to death in the stove. The day after, the maid, in cleaning out the stove, finds a small tin heart in place of the soldier, while all that is left of the little dancer is the charred tin star which adorned her head. At this point, I began to cry in my sleep. It was Eszti who woke me. “Have you had a bad dream, Józsika?” she asked, sitting down on the edge of my bed. I silently stroked her arm. We were alone in the room. Terka and Gudi were still asleep in their little beds. Outside it was snowing. A fire was already burning brightly in the stove, for it was one of Eszti’s duties to make the fire every morning when it was still dark. I got a whiff of the pleasant scent of Eszti’s hair and noticed that she had already washed in fresh cold water. Suddenly I sat up in bed and, laying my arms about her neck, kissed her lips. Eszti warmly returned my kiss and pressed me passionately to herself. I was so happy, I could have cried for sheer joy.

Andersen and I remained friends to the last, but Eszti left us six months later.

I was much grieved at having lost her, but eventually got over it. Only I never dared read any more the tale about beautiful Catherine. I was afraid of awakening painful memories.

Time passed, and I grew into adolescence, wore long trousers, and had to learn algebra. After my algebra lessons, I would again turn to Andersen, feeling that all the truth and beauty which Man could ever experience in this world were there in that much-thumbed little volume. And when I sauntered through our garden in the twilight of an Indian summer evening, I often expected that, at some bend of the garden-path, I would suddenly find myself face to face with Andersen, whom my fancy pictured as a stooping old man, with kindly blue eyes, wearing a powdered wig, and leaning on a gold-topped ebony cane.

The cool evening made me visualize him with a big chequered comforter hanging from his shoulders, and I was sure his clean-cut, wrinkled old face would break into a smile, and he would begin to chat with me, remarking “Good evening, my young friend; the days are growing cold, and an old man like myself has to be careful. How are you getting on? So you like my stories, I am delighted to hear it.”

But Andersen never came, and so I gave up the hope of ever meeting him. I even began to lose my belief in the immortality of the soul. I grew negligent about going to confession, and deliberately had breakfast before communion. To use my mother’s words, I became more and more estranged from God and addicted to sin.

At this time – but not for long – I neglected the Andersen book. I took an interest in the works of the naturalist writers, and thought that Andersen, as an artist, could not hold a candle to these perfect and close observers of life. I did not then know that wisdom was to be found neither in sincerity nor insincerity, but elsewhere, beyond the two.

Of course, I did not realize this until much later, after I had come to live in Budapest, where I attended the university as a medical student and took courses in anatomy, histology and other branches of medical science. It was then that I also found my way back to Andersen. One might believe that important events had occurred in my life the while, yet nothing had happened, save that there had been a gradual change in my world outlook. Perhaps that was a disadvantage. My father advised me, in one of his letters, to become acquainted with life in the capital, adding that a little innocent amusement in the company of friends now and then would do me no harm. But I did not take his advice; I had no friends and took no pleasure in merrymaking.

I was eighteen years old and spent all my Sunday afternoons with my relatives, who said I was a sober, nice young fellow who had not ruined his ruddy provincial complexion through the city’s night-life, and that I was evidently keeping early hours and not frequenting the coffee-houses. Only my uncle Gyula, an army colonel, hinted – soldier-fashion – that one could no longer live without women once one was eighteen. I think it was chiefly the wish to annoy his jealous wife, Aunt Margaret, that prompted him to this remark. She, in turn, tried to persuade me to “stick to the straight and narrow,” until I married.

Aunt Margaret’s arguments did not impress me. I refused to admit the soundness of her view that the same rules applied to men and women alike. But it was autumn, and my studies kept me busy enough. Anatomy especially caused me worry and fatigue at the beginning. After the hated years at secondary school, I at last learned to like studying. In winter I would work far into the evening in well-heated dissecting rooms of the Anatomical Institute. Then, having washed my hands with soap and warm water, I would saunter home through the well-lit streets, imbued with the refreshing feeling of having been reborn. After supper I was glad to be able to devote some time to my favourite books.

Andersen’s tales had, of course, accompanied me to the capital, too. The binding had grown very shabby, the corners were frayed, and the coloured picture on the cover had turned grey. I very seldom reached for it now.

Walking home from the laboratory, one evening in January, I stopped in front of a millinery shop. In glancing at the hats in the window, I became aware of a woman a couple of steps from me, also gazing at the window display. She was a pretty girl, slender and of medium height, wearing a hat trimmed with feathers and a dress which was almost fashionable. Her complexion gleamed white in the light of the electric lamps.

Suddenly she started, her red hair flamed, and she looked at me intently. It was red-haired Eszti! She too recognized me at once. We shook hands and laughed with delight at our unexpected meeting. Soon we were as deep in conversation as if we had parted only the day before. I accompanied her home. It did not take me long to learn that she had come to town as a maid a year and a half before, and had since gone wrong. Yet she was not dressed like an ordinary street-walker. I praised her clothes, and she replied that she hated anything in bad taste and only wore what suited her.

Meanwhile we had walked through a number of back streets and reached her flat. So far Eszti’s beauty had made no impression on me, probably because my afternoon’ work, to which I had lent all my attention, had exhausted me. I was about to take leave of her, but she forestalled me by asking if I wouldn’t like to come up. So we went up to her room. She made tea, and for a time we talked quietly of my home, of my father and mother, my brother and sister, and of the past.

Eszti recalled with pleasure the years she had spent with us as nurse and chamber-maid, and had not even forgotten that I had once strewn her bed with roses. Then she excused herself for a moment and disappeared behind the screen next to the stove. I could now let my glance wander round her large, conventionally furnished room with its scarlet curtains, high-backed settee, polished bed and table. The wall, as far as could be discerned in the dim lamplight, was covered with dark paper and decorated by two large gold-framed pictures of cross county hunting-parties. My leisurely contemplation of the room was suddenly interrupted by Eszti. She stepped from behind the screen, clad in a heliotrope silk dressing-gown which left her throat and arms bare. My heart began beating wildly, and I felt myself growing pale. She came up to me, without uttering a word, and clasping my head with both hands, bent forward and kissed my lips. The blood rushed to my cheeks and I buried my face in her fragrant hair. Once more the exultation which filled my entire being with overflowing happiness, made me want to cry.

Eszti became my mistress. But the blissful moments, during which I learned the great secret of life, were followed, especially in the first days, by hours of bitterness. Was it not undignified, I asked myself, for me to accept the love of such a woman? What would my father, a man of very strict principles, think of it? On the other hand, I did not dare to offer Eszti money. Indeed, the girl’s behaviour revealed such charm, attachment and honesty that I simply could not conceive of her leading a life of easy virtue, or how she had avoided becoming vulgar.

I never broached these subjects to her, which were too painful even to let my own thoughts dwell upon. At first I contemplated writing my father, and asking him to raise my monthly allowance, at the same time making a clean breast of it by telling him openly that I was keeping Eszti.

I even started writing the letter, but never finished it, and tearing it up, resolved to let things take their course.

Usually Eszti would be waiting for me by the gate of the Anatomical Institute at six o’clock each evening, and we would then go for a walk. We would have supper together at some small restaurant, or at her flat, and I would remain with her until 9 o’clock. I was surprised to see how much culture the girl had acquired, although she didn’t care for reading, and had little taste for the arts. She could converse pleasantly and with fluency. She often recalled the years she had spent with us, and had a charmingly frank way of relating the memories out of the past which came to her mind. She had a sensitive emotional life which she willingly revealed to me, and always showed much interest when I spoke of my affairs.

I realized that it was not curiosity, or lust for money, or, as is mostly the case, a peculiarly passionate nature which had brought her to Budapest and had been the cause of her fall, but a refinement and sensitivity too great for a girl of her social standing. She must have felt that she had been born for better things than to become the wife of a peasant or servant, and she had certainly succeeded, as far as circumstances would permit, in rising above her original station in the world.

I loved her because I realized that the perfect beauty of her body was far surpassed by that of her soul. Our relationship was harmonious and undisturbed to a degree I had never dared hope for. And Eszti fostered my passion with infinite tact.

It happened during the second month of our renewed friendship that I was suddenly taken ill. True to the promise I had given my mother, I sent her a postcard notifying her that I had taken to my bed. I had contracted influenza. In the evening, fever developed. At such times it is as though the air has become as dense as oil, and everything seems to be swimming in a soft warm fluid. The wardrobes quite naturally begin to lean to one side or rise to the ceiling. You take fright, for a moment, as the stove, black and awe-inspiring, bends over you; the next moment, it retreats into the corner as harmless as a small grey kitten. Green balls, in groups or singly, keep swimming between you and the objects in the room, bumping into each other with a slow motion, and then separating again. All this serves to tickle your fancy and, at the same time, makes you feel giddy.

The lamp was burning on the table when I awoke, and I saw small, slender green circles playing hide-and-seek in the corners of the room. The landlady was in the act of replenishing the fire. Suddenly I remembered Eszti, who would surely be waiting for me this evening, as usual. Although it cost me a great effort, I asked for my writing-pad and wrote her that she should forgive me for having let her wait for me in vain, but I had been taken ill and send her my love and many kisses until we should meet. Then I again dozed off.

I awoke early, and the drab, blank wall, beyond my window fixed me with its cold stare. I began to think of what the mornings at home had been like, when I had been ill. I saw my father hurrying to my bedside as soon as he was awake. He feels my pulse, examines my eyes and throat and then leaves to wash his hands. The maids cross the room on tiptoe. My room looks out on the street, and I watch the shops opening, one after another: István Miskolczy’s book and stationery shop, Joseph Löwy’s assortment of tombstones, Jakab Schmunzer’s salt-and-flour store, and Menyhért Kocsis, the barber and hairdresser. Dawn is succeeded by daylight. The pain has abated, and I relax at the thought that I need not attend school and would not even be allowed to if I wanted to. The table is being set in the next room, I can hear the clinking of china and silver. The chamber-maid is toasting thin slices of bread over the stove for breakfast, and mother asks me how I slept and promises to read to me before lunch.

My kind-hearted landlady interrupted the train of my reminiscences by bringing in coffee and engaging me in conversation, but all that was nothing compared with the happiness of being sick at home…

I felt better in the forenoon, and read the paper and dozed by turns. Having no appetite, I did not eat any lunch, yet my temperature went up again in the afternoon. I was gazing with tired, feverish eyes at the grey winter sky above the blank wall, when there was a knock at my door and Eszti slipped into the room. She sat down on the edge of my bed, kissed my face and forehead, smoothed my pillows and the wrinkled sheet, and then proceeded to take off her coat. It was wonderful how kind and simple she was… She had combed her hair smooth as in her servant days. She asked how I had been taken ill and how I was feeling. The girl’s extraordinary femininity had an exhilarating effect upon me. She said I should not talk so much and, drawing the cover up to my neck, told me to try and sweat. I willingly obeyed, but stipulated that she should read to me. Andersen’s ragged and faded volume of fairy-tales was lying on the bookshelf among my notes and voluminous medical books. She found the tale of the little Snow Queen and read it to me. By the time she had finished, it had grown dark. Eszti put on the tea-kettle, and then we had the lamp brought in. The next story was the one about old Mother Elder, a tale for children in bed with a bad cold. Eszti read it slowly, pausing now and then to prepare the tea, squeeze some lemon-juice into it and bring it to me on a tray, after which she sat down again and continued reading.

Suddenly there was a ring at the door outside. Soon after, we heard the front door being opened; and the next instant my mother entered.

Embarrassed, and probably stammering a bit, I greeted her with a “Good evening, Mother!” She smothered me with kisses, stroked my head and hands, and looked into my eyes. I could see her relief on finding me not seriously ill.

“Thank heaven, you have almost no temperature,” she said. Eszti meanwhile had risen from her chair, and curtsied when my mother’s look caught hers.

“Good evening, Madam.”

A familiar look of severity spread over my mother’s features. I was overwhelmed with fear and felt a cold shiver running down my spine.

“Eszti and I are reading Andersen’s tales, mother,” I brought forth abruptly. “She is just reading me the story about old Mother Elder while I’m drinking the tea she made for me.”

My mother smiled faintly and asked, “What else have you been reading in Andersen’s book?”

“The tale of the Snow Queen,” Eszti answered.

“That was my favourite story when I was a child,” I said. “Do you remember, mother, how often Eszti used to read it out to me in those days?”

“It’s a lovely story,” replied my mother, in a quiet, soft voice, as she took off her coat and hat, “but I believe you liked the story about beautiful Catherine and that of the dauntless tin soldier equally well in those days.”

“Yes,” I murmured drowsily, “and the story of Catherine appealed to me specially, because I always imagined that Catherine was really Eszti.”

“Eszti was never as stuck-up or hard-hearted as Catherine,” answered my mother, bestowing a warm glance upon Eszti.

“That wasn’t why I thought of Eszti,” I said. “It was because lying in bed one morning I dreamt that I was the dauntless tin soldier and the maid was scraping my earthly remains out of the stove in the form of a small bit of tin, while she found nothing of my sweetheart, the little paper dancer, but the tiny tin star, among the ashes… I cried in my sleep, and it was Eszti who woke me, and I threw my arms around her.” Here I lost the thread of what I was trying to say. I could yet hear my mother and Eszti pottering about the room; but the little green fever circles had again begun dancing before my eyes. Abandoning myself to the soft waves of heat that enveloped me, I stared fixedly at the door, which suddenly approached me, only to retreat again into the distance, along with the walls. When the door had receded so far that it almost seemed to have shrunk into nothingness, it opened slowly and noiselessly.

An old man entered with bent back, and powdered wig, leaning on a gold-tipped ebony cane, and came towards me.

I soon recognized him. It was dear old Andersen. He looked at me with his deep-set blue eyes and stopped beside my bed.

“You recognize me, don’t you, my young friend,” he said. “You know how fond of you I am. As fond as I am of the tin soldier, the little dancer, old Mother Elder and beautiful Catherine. I am also very fond of Eszti, and am glad indeed that she too is so fond of you. It is pleasant and charming to see a young boy and girl who understand each other… You have often come across such a thing in my tales, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Do you still remember the tale of a mother?” he asked.

“Yes, I remember, it is about the mother who goes to the land of death to save her child.”

“In that story the mother sacrifices all she possesses in order to find the land of death.”

“Yes, she gives her eyes, her hair, her arms, and all her tears,” I continued mechanically and sadly.

“But it is not only in fiction that such things occur. Your mother would do the same, my boy,” Andersen said in a tremulous, persuasive voice. “Youth and desire are like two big flowers growing on one stem. And it is a sight that gladdens the beholder…”

Here he paused and gently tickled my cheeks with his cane. “But the expert gardener fears the two flowers will destroy one another through their splendour, and seeks to protect them. Do you understand, my lad?”

The old man looked into my eyes, and I did not know whether to laugh at his words, as at some fable, or to shed tears. I returned his look, tranquilly, seriously. He bent his knee in so droll a manner that I was afraid he might lose his balance or vanish altogether, but he said instead: “Remember the two flowers and bear in mind that if one of them withers, the other will wither too…And now, goodbye.”

He turned to go. The door and walls again receded into the distance, and Andersen too grew ever smaller as he withdrew. He reached the door at last, opened it and disappeared.

I felt a light, cool touch on my forehead. It was my mother’s hand. She was seated on the edge of my bed. When I opened my eyes, she asked whether I felt hungry?

I begged her to read me the story of a mother. It did not occur to me until the following day that Eszti had no longer been in the room.

I was allowed to get up three days later and to accompany my mother to the station, wrapped up in my warmest clothing.

On the way back, my steps of their own accord led me towards Eszti’s flat. There I was told that she had gone away the day before, no one knew where.

It was very hard, at first, to return home alone each evening, and many an hour I lingered in the street, hoping to see Eszti coming towards me. But she never did, and I never heard of her again.

Mikulas

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