F. Berkeley (Frank Berkeley) Smith.

The street of the two friends online

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generally in one of the poorest in Pest, and then
not for long. He falls in love too easily. A
pretty woman is as irresistible to him as gambling
or a new suit of clothes. You can never depend
on this thirty-sixth son of the great Banda
Laczi the most famous of all the gypsy fid-
dlers that Hungary has known for hah* a cen-
tury. Poor old Banda Laczi died when Bela
was a boy.

"Turn your head! Can you see that bar-


rack of a building over there close to the church?
It is a sordid old tenement. It is where nearly
all the gypsy bands in Pest have lived for genera-
tions. It is there that the great Banda Laczi
died. He whose name was a household word
in the land of the Magyars. He who played
before the king, before princes and noblewomen
at the coming-out parties of the little prin-

"Everywhere that black fiddle of his was
heard. In Pest and Buda, in the castles along
the Danube, at the great hunting and wedding
feasts that lasted often for days; as far as the
snow peaks of the Tatra they summoned their
favourite gypsy, old Banda Laczi, and they
filled his servile hand with gold. It was he who
knew how to cure their sorrows, put fresh cour-
age in their hearts. Love, gayety, and good-
fellowship followed in the wake of his fiddle.
Ah, they loved him!"

The countess murmured in Russian: "Boze
moi, Boze mol Bozel Biedny moi loubiemiel"
Her voice full of sympathy as I paused for a
whiff of my cigarette. I saw that she was in-


terested, for she had forgotten her own. Pres-
ently it dropped from her hand, and a spark
scurried toward the gutter of the low balus-

"And so, old Banda died," I resumed, "over
there in that wretched tenement, in a high-post
bed, under an embroidered coverlet, surrounded
by his wives and his many children; his black
fiddle lay across his knees, a silver salver across
his lap; this and the coverlet he had purchased
with the last of his gold. With his last strength
he sliced and partook of a ham from the silver
salver to prove to all the world he was a gypsy
and not a Jew. He had played before the king!
He wished to die like a prince.

"So you see, my dear Countess, the kind of
proud gypsy stock Banda Bela came from. He
was the great Banda's favourite son. The
black fiddle fell to his lot. It is amazing that
Bela has not smashed its precious shell a thou-
sand times in his escapades. It was somewhat
like giving a wild man a rare egg for safe-keeping.
Escapades! Bela has had no end of them."
I laughed. "Do you know that a few years


ago that devil of a Bela nearly kidnapped the
wife of a foreign ambassador?"

The countess opened her eyes wide.

"I do not wonder you are surprised," I con-
tinued. "You who in Russia regard the serf
as incapable of revolt, even when it is a ques-
tion of the heart. But what I tell you is quite
true. He nearly kidnapped the wife of a foreign

: 'That could not have happened in my coun-
try," she said slowly. "Your over-gallant
gypsy would have been knouted to death." A
look of pain came into her dark eyes I had not
seen before. "Ah! Those poor, dumb people
of ours!" she added. "My heart has ached for
them more than once, my friend. I have seen
with my own eyes such cruelty ah, God, such
cruelty ! " Here she again broke off into Russian,
seeming to forget my very presence.

"Da, tak bezchlcrwiechestwo zestoko! I milo-
cerdie nie kogda nie znaiet! Boze moil" (Yes!
Such inhuman cruelty, and mercy is unknown
to them! My God!)

For a moment she was silent.


"Kidnapped," she repeated, rousing herself
suddenly from her reverie. "That is funny!"

She leaned nearer, eager for me to resume.

" It was not so funny for his excellency," I
declared. " He threatened to kill Bela on sight."

"If he could find him," she interposed

"Precisely. Bela had vanished. Not even
his great friend, old Toll Lajos fat, contented,
old Toll Lajos, who plays the clarinet better
than any other knew where he was that
time. Bela has the strength of a bull, and an
ungovernable temper. In point of muscle he is
a match for ten able-bodied ambassadors, but
he ran like a thief, like all gypsies; they are great
cowards. A Hungarian with a stick can scat-
ter twenty of them with guns."

"And is he good-looking, your gypsy?" she
asked, as fascinated as a child now listening to a
new fairy tale.

"Um! He reminds you a good deal of a
clean, well-fed brigand. Stocky, with shoulders
and arms like a blacksmith," I added, as she
stretched forth a white arm toward a silver box


of cigarettes, and I struck a match in the moon-

"Banda Bela is now, I should judge, past
thirty," I continued, "and too lazy in his way to
have learned any language save his own gypsy
tongue. Even his understanding of Magyar is
very limited. His gray, jadelike eyes have that
peculiar glitter in them of a wolf's, especially
when a new air or a pretty woman pleases him.
There is the touch of the brute, too, in his short-
cropped, black side whiskers and his black
moustache, which he dyes and keeps neatly
trimmed over his heavy, determined jaw. Add
to this his swarthy skin, and you have Bela,
all save his smile. His smile is irresistible."

"It is not a very attractive picture you have
drawn of your gypsy," said she, and I thought I
detected a note of disappointment in her voice.

"You see, I am giving the devil his due," I
returned, "and Bela is mostly devil. Last year
he fell in love, and followed her to her own camp.
She was sixteen years old, and the daughter of
the chief's favourite wife, but she left him in a
week for one of her own tribe. Once, Toll


Lajos told me, Bela was camped with some gyp-
sies near Vacz, and I drove half a day over the
wind-swept, fenceless country to find him. We
were always good friends, Bela and I, but I
learned from a village where they had played at
a dance the night before, that the camp had
stolen a pig, and had been driven off."

"Tell me more of his love affairs," she asked

" He will tell you most of them on his fiddle,"
I replied. "You shall hear them if I can find
him. I'll hunt up old Toll Lajos to-night; he
will know where Bela is if any one does."

Again she stretched forth her hand, this time
covering my own with a friendly pressure.

"You are very good," she said. "It is what
I need music the music of your gypsy."

"And when you have heard that black fiddle,"
said I, "it will have told you better stories than
I. It will tell you strange tales of love and grim
legends of the forest. It will have laughed and
cried to you. It will have won your heart."

She gave a little sigh of delight. Below us
the river lay silent in its course, the capricious


breeze shirring its silver tide under a paling

"You will not forget your promise," she said,
as I rose to bid her good-night.

Then I summoned her maid, and took my
leave, and, late as it was, started in search of
Toll Lajos.

"Ah! Banda Bela!" he exclaimed, as I
questioned him at an early hour of the morning
in a big cafe. "Yes, yes he play now hi
Lipot Cafe. He came now two days already."
And smiling, he held up, in explanation of his
broken English, two pudgy brown fingers over
the wet mouthpiece of his short clarinet.

Pest the next night lay glistening under a
thrashing rain a downpour that flushed the
gutters, and sent their torrents roaring into the
sewers. Hurrying forms, bent under umbrellas,
struggled on in the gusts of wind, en route to a
warm refuge in their favourite cafes.

Officers in hooded night coats passed, sturdy
peasant girls, barelegged to the knees, splashed
by, their layers of petticoats bobbing with their


easy stride. The wiry cab horses flashed by at
a spanking trot, some at full gallop, in the down-
pour. Yet this wretched night did not deter
the Countess Navieskowska.

A little before ten we had crossed the broad
Andrassy Ut in a cab, and were clattering along
in a labyrinth of side streets toward the Cafe
Lipot. Finally our steaming horse stopped
before the door of a small cafe, whose smoke-
fogged, curtainless windows, flanking a dingy
corner, resembled the tank of an aquarium filled
with watered milk made luminous within by a
sizzling arc light. Before the door hung limply
in the rain a tattered poster, announcing in big




As we entered, and I led the countess down
the single aisle of the crowded little cafe, Bela
grinned a welcome to me over the neck of the
black fiddle.


The sudden appearance of this beautiful
woman, the instant recognition that she was a
lady and a noblewoman, seemed to electrify the
band. There was a glitter of savage delight in
Bela's jadelike eyes as he smiled and nodded to
a vacant table close to him. Simultaneously
the Czardas that wild gypsy dance they were
playing burst into a quickened pace.

I caught sight of old Toll Lajos as the countess
slipped into her chair beside me. He had de-
serted his big cafe to play with Bela. He had
tried to grin a welcome to me over his short
clarinet, but the frenzied speed of the Czardas
kept his swarthy cheeks puffed and his pudgy
fingers too busy with his improvised obligate
to do more than nod his head good-humouredly.

Every eye hi the room was now on the coun-

It was a silent, respectful crowd of working
people, with not more than a dozen women in the
room. The men sitting over their coffee and
rat-tail cigars, the collars of their damp over-
coats turned up despite the heat.

In the snarl and swing of that wild Czardas,


in the intricacies of its amazing harmonies and
speed, not a note from the band accompanying
the black fiddle was a fraction of a second late.
Banda Bela swung them with him where he
willed; now and then he forced his men with a
yell of command, the black fiddle dominating
them, its graceful neck lying in the hand of its
master, a hand as quick and pliable as a woman's,
as brutal in its massive strength as a fighter's.

It was a double band of sixteen men, and its
two cymballums and two bass viols gave a snap
and fire to the accompaniment that made one's
nerves tingle. Moreover, they played with that
compact ensemble that only gypsies can achieve
in their own music they who cannot read a
written note and who follow purely by intuition
and temperament. Bela seemed to take a
devilish joy in trying to lose his men by a
sudden change of key, by a masterly speed that
quickened to a blur the four slender hammers
of the alert cymbalists as they flew over the
maze of resonant strings of their cymballums.

Woe to him who did not comprehend or fal-
tered! Bela rapped the delinquent sharply


over the head with his bow. Again he crouched
at the far end of the aisle, and, with a yell,
rushed back at his band, arriving with the top
note of a crescendo in an unexpected key.
Again he would shout to them the names of a
score of Czardas, and force them to follow him
as he mixed their order. Still again he played
with six bows at once gathered from his band,
and flung them one by one back to them, until
there was none left but his own to continue the air.

I turned to look at the countess. Her eyes,
grown strangely brilliant, were riveted on Bela,
her lips parted, her breath coming quick.

"You are not disappointed?" I ventured.

"Ah! It is wonderful wonderful!" she
breathed in a voice scarcely audible, without
turning her head.

The Czardas ended in three rapid vibrant
chords. Presently the voice of a young girl
hovered over the black fiddle a low, tender
voice, a voice in which lurked together timidity
and fear, distrust and an aching heart. Sud-
denly it changed. The girl was laughing -
that nervous laugh of innocence. Bela's eyes


were smiling straight into those of the countess,
and, to my amazement, her eyes now gazed into
his own. The voice of the girl became sweeter,
braver, as it sang its simple story the be-
ginning of an old legend.

The countess leaned forward, pressing her
lithe body against the edge of the marble table.
She slipped me a trembling hand a hand upon
which her rings to-night were warmer than her
flesh. Her cheeks were luminous, her dark
eyes now gleamed like jewels.

The voice of the girl sang over the ripple of a
forest brook, and now the sighing forest wind
rose from the belly of the black fiddle. Then
followed the deep, earnest voice of a man.

The wind in the forest increased. Above it
rose the full, passionate voice of the girl speak-
ing her heart and mind. The voice of the man
grew fainter, then rose in a last appeal. Then
came a gentle sobbing I could hear the voice
of the man disappear in the forest.

It was a legened of unrequited love. No one
but Bela could play it; old Banda Laczi had told
it to him on the black fiddle when Bela was a boy.


With a low cry of despair, the legend ended.
In the countess' eyes two tears welled beyond
her dark lashes and trickled down to the cor-
ners of her closed lips. Painfully she drew a
quick breath. She raised her head. Bela came
forth and bowed.

I saw her gaze rest for a moment intently on
the black fiddle, which he held firmly gripped
by the neck. Then I saw her slowly take in
every detail of the man before her his black,
carefully brushed coat, the white silk handker-
chief, embroidered with a green and red heart,
that drooped beneath the standing collar, well
open under his coarse, heavy throat and chin.
She looked keenly up into his eyes now as if
searching some good in them back of his smile
-the smile of a good-natured brigand, whose
mind was fascinated by the woman before him.
It was as if a rose were being closely observed
by a bandit.

"Thank you," murmured the countess.

"I kiss the hand," he returned, with
a low bow and the pride of a conqueror.

"Egen! Egen!" he exclaimed excitedly in


Hungarian, putting forth his free hand to me,
which I grasped heartily a hand that, much
as a Magyar might have admired for its skill, no
Magyar would have deigned to touch. The
band now bowed eagerly, grinning like children.
So did a little boy of fourteen, who played the

"My nephew, Varos," explained Bela to me,
grinning back at the youngster.

He was a little embarrassed this infant,
with his overgrown violin, and turned his
dreamy, black eyes shyly away, fearing he had
been misunderstood. The countess smiled back
at him, and, in his embarrassment, he blushed,
and dropped his bow, which old Toll Lajos
recovered for him under one of the cymballums.
The old fellow laughed so that his small eyes
nearly disappeared under his fat jowls.

As we left the dingy little cafe long after mid-
night, I realized that all her good friends had
done for the Countess Navieskowska was noth-
ing in comparison to what Banda Bela and his
black fiddle had accomplished; they alone had
taken her completely out of herself.


Even as we drove back through the rain-swept
streets, the countess had not recovered from
their hypnotic influence. I noticed she was ex-
tremely nervous, and there still remained that bril-
liancy in her eyes that frankly I did not like. It
was as if she had taken a drug, and I reproached
myself more than once as we drove on that I
had been fool enough to have ever mentioned
Banda Bela. Moreover, she was strangely silent.

Indeed, not until we were in sight of her villa
did she open her lips.

"Will you grant me a favour?" she asked

"With all my heart," I replied, little knowing
what she desired.

'Then invite your savage to dinner at
my villa, if you wish."

"Banda Bela! But you do not know what
you ask, my friend."

"You will do as I wish," she said, with a cer-
tain calm decision. "I wish to hear him alone"
- she checked herself, fearing I might mis-
understand - "that we might hear him alone,
without his band."


"Banda Bela as your guest in your villa?
But, my dear Countess, that is impossible.
Forgive me, but I know best."

"Invite him to your hotel then," she returned,
piqued by my point-blank refusal.

"In Hungary," I explained, as calmly as I
could, "they do not invite gypsies to dinner.
It is unheard of. People would laugh at us.
The very servants would smile in their aprons,
and gossip about it for a year."

She turned sharply, flashing her dark eyes.

"Yet you gave Banda Bela your hand!" she
exclaimed hotly.

I was amazed at her attitude. She, a noble-
woman, defending a gypsy, an outcast, a vaga-
bond! Had she completely lost her reason? Or
was it only the passing whim of a semi-hysterical
woman? I could disguise the truth from her no

"You think me a snob," I said.

She shrugged her shoulders.

"I am not, and you know it. To invite that
savage to dinner in your villa would be running
a risk I do not care to take two risks."


"The first?" she asked, in a low voice, ready
to defend.

"The first, my dear Countess, is that Bela is a
born thief, like all gypsies. You see that my
reason is grave enough."

"You forget that my servant, Rossinoff, was
once with the secret police in Petersburg," she
returned simply. "He is not likely to loan
Banda Bela the key of my jewel box."

"Granted!" I replied. "My second reason,
however, is that I would not leave Bela alone
with you an instant should the occasion be un-

She started.

"Do you suppose that serf!" she exclaimed.
" No ! No ! " she laughed, brightening. " There
is no danger in that, I promise you. Come!
We shall invite, too, the little nephew. He
speaks English, you say?"

"A little. He was with Bela's brother for a
year in London, I believe."

"That is excellent. He shall act as our inter-
preter. We shall be a partie carree. Then it
will be quite safe."


She clapped her gloved hands in her enthu-
siasm, while I shrugged my shoulders, none too
happy over the idea.

"Very well, then," I consented. "But not to
your villa. He must never see the inside of
your house. At my hotel then, at seven-thirty
to-morrow. Bela will be free, for to-morrow
is Good Friday, and no gypsy plays a note in
public. It must be a fish dinner, for a gypsy
to-morrow, at least, pretends to be a good Catho-
lic, and does not touch meat. There will be no
difficulty in persuading Bela to accept," I de-
clared, as we stopped in front of the gate of her
villa. "I shall see that he brings both the black
fiddle and the little nephew. Banda Bela would
rather dine with you than be thrown a hundred

She laughed delicious ly; as happy as a child
whose whim had been gratified, as I squeezed
my way out of the musty cab, indicated the
mud-smeared step for her slim foot, opened
my umbrella, conducted her in a gentle rain to
her waiting maid, and bade her good-night.

You enter the Grand Hotel Magyar Salloda


by a square hall, draped in magenta velvet cur-
tains. Beyond this old-fashioned entrance lies
a vast ballroom, lighted only upon rare public
occasions. At the extremity of this cavernous
room a narrow corridor leads in two turns and
a discreet twist to a small private dining room
without a bell.

It was in this cabinet particulier that our
partie carree was dining on the following night,
Banda Bela facing his dreamy, black-eyed
little nephew Varos. In a carved armchair, the
Countess Navieskowska, radiantly beautiful in
a decollete gown of glittering steel-blue scales,
sat facing me. It was a gown that only a great
beauty could have worn. A woman whose subtle
lines were perfection.

Banda Bela wore for the occasion a black
broadcloth coat, a dress waistcoat, revealing an
immaculate, many-plaited shirt front, and a
black cravat ornamented beneath a standing
collar by an oval silver brooch, studded with
mother-of-pearl and turquoise, evidently a gypsy

Though I well knew the suppressed amaze-


merit of the maltre d'hotel and his equally sphinx-
like waiters serving a fish dinner to two gypsies,
they concealed their astonishment stoically,
though I could not help catching sight of the
positive alarm in the chief clerk's eyes as I went
forward to welcome my guests on their ar-

Like his celebrated father, Banda Bela had
been summoned to play before a prince and
princess, yet never in his whole life had the great
Banda Laczi been bidden, as his son to-night,
to dine with royalty.

This, at least, was what was passing in Bela's
mind, for it was plain enough he took me for a
nobleman of colossal importance and untold
wealth. None but so supreme a personage as
myself would have dared invite him. The wine,
the silver dishes, the roses, the shaded lights, and
the silent servility of the servants all con-
vinced him of this. True, he had heard of
America and its millions, though America was
as vague to him as China. I was evidently the
Emperor of America's brother, and a multimil-


Banda Bela was in the glory of his savage
pride. His smile to-night was keyed to one of
devilish content. In the midst of this luxury
with the most beautiful and gracious woman he
had ever met within arm's reach of him ham-
pered as he was to explain all he felt, he talked
incessantly in gypsy which the dreamy-eyed
little nephew, waking up at intervals, like the
Dormouse in "Alice in Wonderland," trans-
lated to the best of his infant ability to the
countess and myself in his limited English.

At the end of every gypsy sentence Bela
drained his glass. Never had I seen a man drink
as he did and keep sober. Though, like the
martinet of an uncle he was, he allowed Varos
nothing but lemonade. Before we had reached
the salad, the bottle of mellow Tokay before
him was empty; he, too, had drained the lion's
share of champagne, and I now saw the surface
line of my private bottle of Scotch whiskey sink
lower and lower under his active hand.

Now and then the Dormouse would resume
his struggles.

"My onk'l he say he happy," explained the


Dormouse lazily. "That he soon play for the
beautiful lady." And the Dormouse nodded
sleepily over his third helping of ice cream to the
black fiddle in its case in the corner.

"My onk'l he say he honour with heart the
beauty of the lady. He honour with whole
heart America and Russia."

'''Alien Magyar nemset!" I returned, drinking
Bela's health in Hungarian, though it was risky,
for his swarthy jowls now had a dull flush about
them, and the cords of his bull neck stood out
like bronze.

We had now reached our liqueurs. Bela, with
a hand as steady as a surgeon's, lighted the
countess' cigarette. She had been graciousness
itself throughout this strange dinner; kind to
the little nephew, clever in her repartee, and
fearless in her undisguised admiration of the sav-
age on her right. She turned now, and nodded
pleadingly to the black fiddle in the corner.

There came from Bela a sharp command
the command of a general about to lead a charge
- and the Dormouse brought the black fiddle
from its case.


Standing close to the countess, seated in her
chair, Banda Bela began. The black fiddle
awakened under his massive, vibrant hand,
alive and eager for the conquest as if in league
with its master. Its voice became insistent and
human as a lover's.

Presently I saw the countess weaken and
grow numb under its spell. Her white arms
lay listless in her lap. She sat there as in
a dream, a faint smile playing about the
corners of her mouth, her eyes half closed,
her head slightly bent, like a woman sure of

Not for an instant did Banda Bela take his
eyes from her; now and then he bent his black
fiddle lower and nearer, until its voice spoke in
her ear little ears that burned and tingled
with a strange delight. Banda Bela played to
win her heart, and, by God, he did !

I felt the cold sweat creep to my forehead, and
I grew sick at heart. She was no longer my
gracious friend, but a woman pitifully drunk
now under the power of sensuality. The ner-
vous tremor of her hands, her brilliant, dilated


eyes staring vacantly at the smouldering tip of
her cigarette, burning itself out in her dessert
plate. The catlike tenseness of her body sent

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Online LibraryF. Berkeley (Frank Berkeley) SmithThe street of the two friends → online text (page 3 of 16)