Mór Jókai ~ The Unlucky Weathercock

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It seems as if fortune delighted in extending her hand favourably towards some individuals, while to others she only puts it forth to deceive and buffet them through life. Her caprices have furnished us with a lively example in both manners of dealing. We relate the simple facts as we heard them, without adding a word.

Towards the close of 1848, war was the only theme in vogue. In Pesth especially, the word peace was quite out of fashion. The hotels were filled with guests who met for the purpose of discussing the favourite topic; martial music was heard from morning till night: the European war was preparing.

Two personages were sitting together before a small table at the hotel “Nagy Pipa,” to whom the German saying might have been applied—”Der eine schweigt, der andere hört zu,” for one of these two personages seemed attentively considering the probable or possible cause of his companion’s silence, casting, from time to time, a scrutinizing glance on his countenance, intended to penetrate whatever dark project might be passing within.

This observant individual was no other than the humane Master Janos, Police-corporal, and vice-jailer of the noble city of Pesth; and when we inform our readers that he occupied this post during Metternich’s time, and that, notwithstanding that minister’s overthrow, he still retained his position, unlike the usual fate of the adherents of a fallen ministry, they will surely admit that the favourite of fortune could not be better personified than by the same Master Janos; nor can it be denied that the individual opposite was no less persecuted by the fickle goddess, not only because he was the object of honest Master Janos’s suspicious glances; but more especially because a nailsmith’s apprentice from Vienna could think of coming to Hungary of all places on earth—a country where the craft is carried on wholesale at the corner of every village, by the Wallachian gipsies.

Master Janos had not studied Lavater, but long experience had led him to conclude, after minute examination of the man’s countenance, that some counter-revolutionary scheme was turning in his head.

Consequently he drew his chair nearer, and determined to break the silence.

“Where do you come from, sir? if I may presume to ask,” he inquired, with a wily glance at his companion.

“Hyay! from Vienna,” sighed the stranger, looking into the bottom of his glass.

“And what news from that city?”

“Hyaee! nothing good.”

“Eh, what? nothing good!—what bad, then?”

“Hyay! war is much feared.”

“Feared! what audacity!—how dare they fear?”

“Hyay! sir, I do not fear either at thirty leagues’ distance; but once I heard from the cellar how they were bombarding the streets, and I found nothing agreeable in it.”

Master Janos found still greater reason for suspicion. He resolved to make him drink, and he would probably come on the traces of some dangerous plot.

How much does a nailsmith’s stomach require? At the second pitcher his head sank slowly back, and his tongue moved with difficulty.

“Now for it!” thought Master Janos, filling his glass. “Eljen! liberty!” he exclaimed, waiting for the nailsmith to strike glasses.

The latter was not long in responding to the invitation, and echoed the “Eljen!” as far as his thickening tongue permitted.

“Now it is your turn to give a toast,” said the vice-jailer, slily eyeing his victim.

“Indeed, I am not used to give toasts, sir; I only drink them.”

“Come, don’t play the egotist, but drink to whoever you consider the greatest man in the world!”

“In the whole world?” replied the nailsmith, reflecting that the world was very large, and that he knew very little about it.

“Yes, in the whole world!—the whole round earth!” pursued Master Janos, confidently.

The nailsmith hesitated, scratched his nose, scratched his ear, scratched his whole head, and, finally, cried out, “Success to Master Slimak!”

The vice-jailer shuddered at this public demonstration. It was quite clear that this Master Slimak was some gunpowder-sworn commander-in-chief—there was no doubt of it, and, without any further ado, he seized the nailsmith by the collar, and, brevi manu, escorted him to the town-hall, where he dragged him into a narrow, ominous-looking chamber, before a stout, red-faced gentleman.

“This man is a suspicious character,” he exclaimed. “In the first place, he has the audacity to fear war; in the next place, he sat from seven o’clock until half-past nine, two whole hours and a half, without opening his lips; and, finally, he was impious enough to give a public toast to a certain Master Slimak, who is probably quite as suspicious a character as himself.”

“Who is this Master Slimak?” asked the stout, red-faced gentleman, sternly.

“Nobody, indeed,” replied the trembling Viennese, “but my former master, an honest nailsmith, whom I served four years, and would be serving still, had his wife not beaten me.”

“Impossible!” ejaculated the fat, red-faced gentleman. “It is not customary to give public toasts to such personages.”

“But I don’t know what the custom is here.”

“If you wished to give a toast, why did you not drink to constitutional liberty, to the upper and lower Danube armies, or to freedom of the press, and such toasts?”

“Hyay, sir! I could not learn all that in a month!”

“But in three months I daresay you will be able to learn it well enough. Master Janos, take that man into custody.”

The humane Master Janos again seized the delinquent by the collar, ut supra, and escorted him to the place appropriated to such malefactors, where he had time to consider why he was put there.


The three months passed slowly enough to the nailsmith. It was now the middle of March.

Master Janos punctually released his prisoner, and the honest man, in order to prove the reform in his sentiments, and thereby rise in Master Janos’s opinion, greeted him with, “Success to liberty, and the Hungarian arms!”

Master Janos stumbled against the wall in speechless horror, and as soon as he had regained his equilibrium, he seized the astonished nailsmith, who, when he had recovered his terrified senses, found himself again in the narrow, ominous chamber; but now, instead of the stout, red-faced gentleman, he stood before a lean, black gentleman, who, when he understood the charge against the prisoner, without permitting any explanation, condemned him to three months’ imprisonment, informing him that henceforth, unless he wished to fare worse, he would exclaim, “Success to the imperial armies, the great constitution, and the one and powerful Austria!”

And the nailsmith, having made three steps beyond his prison door, was brought back to renew his captivity, and ponder over his strange fate.


The three months had again passed over. It was some time in June.

The humane Master Janos did not fail to release his captive. The poor man began at his prison door to declaim the redeeming words of “Long live Prince Windischgrätz! success to glorious Austria!”

Master Janos laid his hand upon his sword, as if to protect himself from this incorrigible man.

“What! was it not enough to imprison you twice? Have you not yet learned what you should say? Have the kindness to step in here.”

And for the third time they entered the narrow chamber.

Instead of the meagre, black gentleman, it was again the fat, red-faced gentleman before whom our victim was called in question for his repeated crime.

“Obstinate traitor!” he exclaimed; “are you aware of the extent of your offence, and that if I did not condemn you to an imprisonment of three months on my own responsibility, instead of giving you up to justice, you would be cut into four quarters, as you deserve?”

The unhappy nailsmith must needs rejoice, in his extreme terror, at the mildness of the punishment.

“But what should I have said?” he asked his lenient judge, in a voice of despair.

“What should you have said? why, Success to the republic! Success to democracy! Success to revolution!”

The poor man repeated the three injunctions, and promising faithfully to attend to them, he resigned himself patiently to a new lease of his dark abode.


During the ensuing three months, everything had changed except the good fortune of Master Janos. Neither time nor chance could succeed in displacing him, as they had so many others. He was still vice-jailer of the noble city of Pesth, as he had formerly been.

It was now September. The nailsmith’s penalty was out, and Master Janos called him forth.

The prisoner’s countenance expressed something unusually important, and no sooner did the vice-jailer approach, than, seizing his hand, he exclaimed, between his sobs, “Oh, Master Janos, tell the black gentleman that I humbly kiss his hand, and wish him from the bottom of my heart, ‘Success to the Republic!'”

As the hungry wolf pounces on the lamb, Master Janos once more seized the nailsmith by his ill-used collar; and indeed, so shocked was the worthy jailer, that, having brought his prisoner into the narrow chamber, it was some time before he could recover himself sufficiently to explain the circumstance to the lean, black gentleman, who once more occupied the place of the fat, red-faced one; and great was his vexation when this individual, instead of sentencing the delinquent to be broken on the wheel, merely awarded him three months more imprisonment!

On the third of November 1849, all who had been imprisoned for slight political offences were released from their confinement, and among others the nailsmith.

As Master Janos opened the door, the unfortunate man stopped his mouth with his pocket-handkerchief, giving the humane jailer by this pantomime to understand, that he would henceforth keep his demonstrations to himself.

It might have been some consolation to him to know that he was not the only one who cried out at the wrong time!

DMdJ Neu1

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