They sit, the worshipful government authorities of Pesth, at the ink-bespattered green table in the council room of the Assembly House, the president himself in the chair; close beside him, the prefect, whom his neighbour, the “overseer of granaries,” was doing his best to confuse by his talking. On his left is an empty chair, beside which sits the auditor, busy sketching hussars with a red pencil on the back of a bill. Opposite is the official tax-collector whose neck is already quite stiff with looking up at the clock to see how far it is from dinner-time. The rest of the party are consequential officials who divide their time between discussing fine distinctions in Latinity, and cutting toothpicks for the approaching mid-day meal.
The eighth seat, which remains empty, is destined for the magistrate. But empty it won’t be for long.
And indeed it is not empty because its owner is too lazy to fill it, but because he is on official affairs intent in the actual court room, whereof the door stands ajar, so that although he cannot[Pg 2] hear all that is going forward, he can have a voice in the discussion when the vote is taken.
From the court itself rises a malodorous steam from the damp sheepskin cloaks, the reek of dirty boots and the pungent fumes of garlic—a combined stench so thick that you could have cut it with a knife. Peasants there are too there in plenty, Magyars, Rascians, and Swabians: all of whom must get their “viginti solidos,” otherwise their “twenty strokes with the lash.”
For to-day is the fourth session of the local court of criminal appeal. On this day, the serious cases are taken first, and after the death-sentences have been passed, come a succession of lesser peasant offenders for judgment.
Some have broken open granaries, others have been guilty of assaults, but there are three main groups. To one of these belong the settlers from Izbegh who have been convicted of gathering wood in the forests of the nobles. The second section embraces those culprits who were artful enough during the vintage to cover the ripe grapes over with earth, (so that the magnates should be cheated out of their tithes), and to evade the heydukes who kept watch and ward over the vintagers. Thirdly, there were the offenders who had formed a deputation to the chancery court, and dared to pray for a revision of the public accounts for the past twenty-five years, a request at once temerarious and stupid, for twenty-five years is a long time—long enough[Pg 3] indeed for accounts to become rotten and worm-eaten. But that they were in sufficiently good order, the revenue for this particular year, 1783, testified, seeing it amounted to sixty thousand gulden, of which six thousand were paid to the ground landlord, and two thousand towards the internal expenses of the province, with a balance in hand of fifty-two thousand gulden—not an extravagant outlay, surely!
But what remains for the peasant?
Why just those twenty strokes with the lash. These solve the question of “plus” and “minus.”
The presiding judge, Mr. Peter Petray, only records his vote through the door, but he himself is doing his official part, for from the window of the adjoining room he superintends the sentences carried out in the improvised court below. There are the prisoners in the dock on whom the vials of justice are being poured forth. They are by no means a contemptible study either for the psychologist or the ethnographer. The Rascians are the defaulters against the vintage rights, and loudly they shriek and curse as the blows are administered, whilst the outragers of the forestry laws are mostly Swabians, who take advantage of the pauses between the lashes roundly to abuse the overseer. But there are many other delinquents besides in that motley crowd, who simply clench their teeth and await their chastisement.
But the eye of the law must itself watch over the execution of judgment, so that nothing in the[Pg 4] shape of an understanding between the heyduke and the culprit, tending to mollify the punishment, may be arrived at. Much depends on how the blows are laid on. Not only does the sentence provide that the due number of lashes may be fulfilled, but likewise that the strokes should be heavy. It is for this that the judge, if he sees the heyduke falter in his work, urges him on to harder blows, by calling out “Fortius!”
But Judge Petray knows how to combine duty and pleasure. For Fräulein Fruzsinka, the niece of the prefect, is also in the room, and their whispered confidences and languishing glances show that the judge and the young lady have not met here to discuss simply official questions.
Whilst the notary in the next room is reading the indictment in a loud enough tone for Petray to be able to follow him, this dignitary manages to interpolate various interesting “asides” to his companion amid the fire of cross questions, and only calls out his vote when asked for it.
Only the prefect cannot just now leave his post as assessor, and it is impossible for him to see all that goes on. In the pauses therefore between the blows, the flirtation between these two goes on merrily.
It was just then that Fräulein Fruzsinka whispered something to her lover.
“Willingly,” he answers, “but while I do it the Fräulein must take my place at the window, and count the strokes in my stead.”
Fräulein Fruzsinka leaned out of the window still laughing heartily, and began to count as if she were noting a scale of music. The culprit, seeing a girl’s smiling face looking down on him, appealed to her for mercy. And the young lady, who was by no means hard-hearted, called out to the heyduke: “Don’t beat the poor fellow so pitilessly, Fortius.” But that official only flogged all the harder.
At the twelfth stroke, Petray came back and slipped something into the hand of the girl as she leaned out of the window.
This something she pressed to her lips as she withdrew again behind the curtain, hiding it in the great locket she wore on her breast. The judge counted on.
Now it was the turn of a gipsy band, six of whose number had stolen a goose, and were to receive half a dozen lashes apiece in consequence. Later on they will provide the music at dinner, at the command of their prosecutors: “Now we fiddle to you, then you will play to us!”
Fräulein Fruzsinka, with a parting hand-clasp, hastens away to see to the setting of the table, for the silver and glass and table-linen are her special care. The judge raised her hand to his lips as she left.
Categories: English Literature