CHAPTER I BOREDOM
"Was it you who yawned so, Clementina?"
The questioner was an old gentleman in his eightieth year or so, dressed in a splendid flowered silk Kaftan, with a woollen night-cap on his head, warm cotton stockings on his feet, and diamond, turquoise, and ruby rings on his fingers. He was reclining on an atlas ottoman, his face was as wooden as a mummy's, a mere patch-work of wrinkles, he had a dry, thin, pointed nose, shaggy, autumnal-yellow eyebrows, and his large prominent black eyes protected by irritably sensitive eyelids, lent little charm to his peculiar cast of countenance.
"Well! Will nobody answer? Who yawned so loudly behind my back just now?" he asked again, with an angry snort. "Will nobody answer?"
Nobody answered, and yet there was a sufficient number of people in the room to have found an answer between them. In front of the hearth was sitting a young woman about thirty or thirty-five, with just such a strongly-pronounced pointed nose, with just such high raised eyebrows as the old gentleman's, only her face was still red (though the favour of Nature had not much to do with that perhaps) and her eyebrows were still black; but her thin lips were just as hermetically sealed as the old man's, when she was not speaking. This young woman was playing at Patience.
In one of the windows sat a young girl of sixteen, a delicate creature of rapid growth, whose every limb and feature seemed preternaturally thin and fragile. She was occupied with some sort of sewing. At another little sewing-table, immediately opposite to her, was a red-cheeked damsel with a frightful mop of light hair and a figure which had all the possibilities of stoutness before it. She was a sort of governess, and was supposed to be English, though they had only her word for it. She was reading a book.
On the silk ottoman behind lay the already-mentioned Clementina, who ought to have confessed to the sin of yawning. She was a spinster already far advanced in the afternoon of life, and had cinder-coloured ringlets around her temples and a little bit of beard on her chin. She was no blood relation of the family but, as an ancient companion to a former mistress of the house, had long eaten the bread of charity under that roof. She was now engaged upon some eye-tormenting, fine fancy work which could not have afforded the poor creature very much amusement.
The old gentleman on the sofa used to divert himself the whole day by assembling as many human beings around him as possible and driving them to desperation by his unendurable nagging and chiding; they, on the other hand, had by this time discovered that the best defence against this domestic visitation was never to answer so much as a word.
"Of course! Of course!" continued the old gentleman with stinging sarcasm. "I know what a bore it is to be near me and about me. I see through it all. Yes, I know that I am an unendurable old fellow on whom not a single word should be wasted. I know well enough that you are not sitting here beside me because you like to be here. Who compels you to? I certainly shall not prevent anybody's petticoat from going away by laying hold of it. The gate is not closed. Nothing easier than to be off. Yet nobody likes the idea, eh? Ah-ha! It is possible that when the eye of old Lapussa no longer sees, the heart of old Lapussa may no longer remember. Besides, nobody can tell exactly when the old man may die. Indeed they are waiting for his death every hour—he is beyond eighty already. A most awful bore certainly. Ah ha! The old fool is unable to get up any more, he is not even able to strike anybody. If he cries out, nobody is afraid of him; but, at any rate, he has strength enough to pull the bell-rope, send for his steward, tell him to go to the office of the alispán there ferret out and bring back his last will and testament—and then he can dictate another will to his lawyer quite cosily at his ease."
Vice-lieutenant of the county.
And in order to emphasize his words more terribly, he there and then gave a tug at the bell-rope.
Yet for all that nobody turned towards him; the lady kept dealing out the cards, the young girl continued working beads into her sampler, the governess went on reading, and the old spinster was still intent upon some delicate operation with her needle—just as if nobody had spoken a word.
In answer to the bell an ancient serving-man appeared in the doorway, and the old gentleman, after waiting a little to see from the countenances of those present (he could observe them in the mirror opposite) whether his allusion to his will had produced any effect, and finding no notice taken of it whatever, said in a sharp, petulant voice: "Louis!"
The servant approached the sofa and then stood still again.
This was the end of the awe-inspiring threat.
The old gentleman observed, or rather, suspected, some slight amusement in the company present.
"Miss Kleary!" he observed irritably, "don't you observe that Henrietta is looking out of the window again? I am bound, Miss, to direct your attention to the fact that I consider such a thing decidedly unbecoming in a young lady."
"Dear Grandpapa.....!" began the accused.
"Silence! I did not speak to Henrietta, I spoke to Miss Kleary. Miss Henrietta is still a child who understands nothing. I neither address her nor attempt to explain anything to her. But I keep Miss Kleary in this house, I pay Miss Kleary a princely salary, in order that I may have some one at hand to whom I can explain my educational ideas. Now my educational ideas are good; nay, Miss, I think I may even say that they are very good. I will therefore beg you to do me the favour to stick to them. I know what ought and what ought not to be allowed young girls; I know that....."
The young girl's face blushed beneath the reproachful look of the old tyrant, whilst the governess rose defiantly from her place, and in order that she might wreak her anger upon some one, industriously proceeded to pick holes in Henrietta's sewing and effectually spoil her whole day's work.
Thus, it will be perceived, only one person had the right to speak; the only right the other people had was not to listen to him.
But there was someone else in the background who had better rights than anybody, and this someone now began to hammer with his fists on the door, that very door at which the oldest and most trusty domestics hardly dared to tap—began, I say, to hammer with his fists and kick with his heels till everyone was downright scared.
This was the little grandson, the old gentleman's spoiled darling little Maksi.
"Why don't you let in little Maksi?" cried the old gentleman, when he heard him. "Open the door for little Maksi; don't you know that he is not tall enough to reach the door-handle?...