03. 21. 2016. 14:06

The Fourteen-Carat Car

Jenő Rejtő’s legendary wit has made him one of the most popular writers in Hungary. His comic thrillers, written mostly in the 1930s, are a unique combination of madcap humour and out-and-out pulp adventure. His effortless bon mots have made it into everyday use, and his surreal Vaudeville humour remains a touchstone across several generations of readers. He was born in Budapest in 1905, wrote famously at his habitual table in the Japán Kávéház [Café Japan] and died on the 1st January 1943 in a forced labour camp. His last words, said to a comrade who was going to have to carry him out and bury him, were apparently: “I’m afraid I’m going to be rather heavy.”

Ivan Gorchev, an able seaman on the S.S. Rangoon, was just shy of his twenty-first birthday when he won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Winning such a prestigious scientific award at that tender age is undeniably an almost unheard-of achievement. Some will seek to detract from this incredible accomplishment by pointing out that Gorchev won the Nobel Prize for Physics in a game of blackjack from Professor Noah Bertinus, who had been presented it two days previously by the King of Sweden. But let the tongues of the doubting nabobs wag! The important thing is that Ivan Gorchev won the Nobel Prize at twenty.

Professor Bertinus, the recipient of the Nobel Prize, had boarded the ship in Göteborg, with the medal in his case. Before the ship departed, the members of the Franklin Association of Sweden came on deck to present him with the large gold medal they award for groundbreaking research on the sub-atomic particle as well. The ship then left, much to the satisfaction of the eminent professor, who could hardly wait to get back to his couple of acres of vineyard in Bordeaux (a couple of acres of vineyard in Bordeaux being de rigueur for French civil servants of a certain age, be they portly jurists or directors of provincial museums).

Gorchev had boarded the ship in Southampton, intending – for reasons not entirely clear even unto himself – to cross the Channel. It’s true that he had been dismissed from another merchant ship for assaulting the First Mate with an anchor, but as to why someone who has been dismissed from a freighter for assaulting a First Mate should cross the Channel, this will have to remain a mystery, like so many of our unpredictable hero’s actions.

The exact circumstances of the meeting of this unpolished youth with the world-famous scientist are also unclear, but what is most unclear of all is how he managed to persuade this timid professor of advanced years to enter into a game – for stakes however small – of blackjack, gambling being illegal on board ship. Most likely, we shall never know the full details. Apparently, the whole thing started when the professor got seasick on deck and Gorchev offered him a pleasant concoction of his own devising, consisting of lemon juice, cognac and bicarbonate of soda. This having improved the professor’s condition somewhat, he asked the young man who he was and where he came from.

“Ivan Gorchev, professional twenty year old at your service! You see before you the eldest son of the brother of Baron Gorchev of Nasia Goriodin, Councillor to the Tsar. My father was a Captain of the Guard and my uncle led the defence of Odessa against the mutinous fleet in the time of Regent Verstkov Yustvesti.”

Not a word of this was true, of course. But the gullibility of young ladies of tender years and scientists of the third age is apparently limitless. The professor applied his pince-nez.

“So you’re an émigré, eh?”

“That’s right, my little professor,” Gorchev sighed. “My father once gave the Royal Ballet ten thousand roubles… the drives out to Tsarskoe Selo in a gilded sleigh…Ah, Stolichnaya! Ah, the Volga! If only I could be there now…”

“But you can’t possibly remember Russia if you’re only twenty.”

“All the worse, my little professor. I’ve never set eyes on that distant, snowy land that burns so fiercely in my memories…”

“Hm. And where are you headed now, Mr Gorchev?”

“I’m on a mission. Something of a delicate nature, you know.”

The reader, paying close attention, will already have noticed one of our hero’s many remarkable traits. It was his policy never to tell the truth; but that is not to say he liked to lie. No – he merely expressed, unfiltered, the first thing that came to mind. This trait of his had landed him in a great many extremely complicated situations in his young life. There wasn’t much in the way of consistency in his variegated words and actions.

“The trouble is, I’m short of cash. Some vagabond managed to trick me out of all my money.”

“How?”

“Oh, I was young and foolish. You meet all sorts of shady characters in life and never give a thought to what might happen. Some crooked beggar in London taught me blackjack and cleaned me out.”

“If you don’t mind my saying, that really was not very wise of you. What sort of a game is this blackjack?”

Gorchev gave another sigh and produced a deck of cards from his pocket.

“Well, you see, the maximum number of points is twenty-one, and you have to get as close to that as you can…”

The professor tried his luck, playing five centimes a point, and won ten francs. Later, when he had lost two thousand, they upped the stakes. Later still, they upped them again (more than once), and by the time they reached Bordeaux, Ivan Gorchev had won all the professor’s Nobel prize money. Had the professor been going as far as Nice, it is entirely possible that this talented youth would have relieved him of the Franklin Society’s big gold medal as well.

At the tender age of twenty, this would indeed have been an unparalleled achievement from our hero, but sadly the professor alighted at Bordeaux, taking with him the Franklin Society’s big gold medal and meditating on the deficiencies of the French education system, which left the finer points of blackjack almost entirely out of the post-graduate curriculum. Gorchev stood at the ship’s rail for a goodly while, waving the professor off emotionally.

2.

What does one do when, at the age of twenty, without a serious bone in one’s body, one suddenly finds oneself in possession of an unexpected fortune? That was precisely the question Ivan Gorchev asked himself now. Fortunately, the answer was forthcoming from the same quarter.

One leaves the boat at Nice. There, one starts hanging around the quay trying to find a friend, because what on earth is the use of all that money if you have no-one to spend it with?

But who should his companion be? Gorchev surveyed the docks. The front-runner was what appeared to be a dockhand standing conspicuously by the quayside. This apparent dockhand was standing where the dockhands usually congregated dressed in a brown suit jacket and black bathing trunks. All the other dockhands had already been hired that day – only he was left. What made him stand out further was that he was wearing a pair of pince-nez and made up for his lack of a shirt by draping a yellow flannel around his neck, its two bobbly ends tucked into his trunks. Compensating for the sartorial slackness of the trunks was a straw hat. The hat was in a relatively decent state, and although it was perhaps a size or two too small for the head it sat on, its rim was almost entirely intact. Heavy, disdainful wrinkles bunched themselves into a grimace around a thick black English moustache. This man looked wretched enough to weep but he just stood around picking his teeth. He did so, perhaps, as some imitation of eating, the act itself having eluded him. It looked as if he wouldn’t find work at all that day, but eventually a foreman did approach him.

“Come over to dock five, we need to load some crates.”

“Are they heavy?”

The foreman’s eyes turned cold as steel. What a question from a dockhand!

“My good man,” the man in the brown jacket began, somewhat tersely and irritably, “I need to know on account of my hernia.”

‘Idiot’, the foreman muttered, and left.

“Well! Some people have all the manners…” the man remarked as he watched the foreman vanish.

It was immediately clear to Gorchev, who had been party to this exchange from near by, that he had found his man. He proceeded to approach him.

“Looking for a job?”

“I’m no idler, sir!”

“Pity. Still, we’ll work around that. I could use someone like you. What would suit you best?”

The man surveyed himself from top to toe; his wasted legs, his comical bathing trunks and baggy brown jacket, shrugged and said:

“I’m surprised you had to ask. I am a born private secretary.”

“That’s lucky, because I’m a secretary short. Start right away. Your salary is two thousand francs a month. What’re you called?”

“My name is Vanek.”

“Good name. Here you go, Vanek, old fruit, here’s your first month’s pay – three thousand francs.”

“You said two just now.”

“I gave you a raise, in light of your rapid progress. Here, take it…”

“But of course,” said Vanek, stuffing the notes into his breast pocket with the air of natural irritation of someone resentful of having to deal with such frivolities. “I’ll need to know what my duties are.”

“Oh, you’ll have plenty to do, old sausage. I’m not sure what exactly, but that doesn’t matter anyway. You’re on easy street now, Vanek, old pal…”

“My name,” he replied with icy emphasis, rejecting all attempts at familiarity, “is Vanek.”

“I’m sorry, Vanek. You’re quite a find,” Ivan added, because he liked it when people refused to part with their pride, even for short-term gain.

“Why don’t I tell you how I came to sink to this sorry state…”

“There’s lots of reasons, but you can tell me anyway. If you didn’t, though, I’d be truly grateful.”

“As you like…I can tell when I’m not wanted. What should I do now?”

“I don’t know yet, but we’ll think of something. I’m going to have a wander round Nice now. I’ll let you know if I need you, old sock…”

“My name is Vanek.”

“Sorry, Vanek. I can see you’re sensitive. That’s good – I’ve always had a soft spot for eccentrics. So! Let’s meet back here shortly.”

“You expect me just to stand here?”

“Stand wherever you like.”

“But then how will you find me?”

“I won’t. Goodbye!” Gorchev said and hurried happily away.

He was very pleased that he had managed to give Vanek a lot of money, and he was certain that the man would now move on somewhere for fear Gorchev’s doctors would appear and demand that he return the funds the poor lunatic had given him in one of his fits. Gorchev headed straight for Nice’s wonderful beachfront promenade, or plage, a palm-lined avenue with the finest hotels on the Riviera. He installed himself in the distinctly regal environs of the restaurant of the Hotel Mediterranée. The sun-kissed guests, almost crippled with ennui, noted with concern the appearance among them of an uncouth young man in canvas trousers of a dubious whiteness, a striped sailor jersey and, somewhat inexplicably, a round white Royal Navy hat. A girl in a red dress at the next table actually giggled. The young man doffed his R. Navy hat with a broad smile and then banged loudly on the table several times.

“Garçon! Beer!”

The waiter, paling beneath his tan, sidled quickly over.

“Look here, this isn’t some dive for sailors.”

“Strange, I could have sworn this was the Up the Happy Pirate!, home of the most exclusive cockfights in town. But never mind, it’ll have to do. Bring me a pint of beer.”

“We don’t serve beer!”

“In that case, make it half a kilo of caviar, a bottle of champagne and a grand dozen red roses.”

At this point, the waiter committed the rookie error of touching Gorchev on the arm in an effort to persuade him to leave. Something he really should not have done.

A second after this unfortunate attempt at physical contact, everything went black before the waiter. It was some time later that he awoke to find several people supporting him and padding his face with a wet towel. This despite the fact that Gorchev had merely slapped him. The strange young man, meanwhile, finally took offence at the waiter’s attitude, doffed his Royal Navy cap, produced a black-rimmed monocle which, once inserted, made him look even more ridiculous, and left. The staff searched around under the farther tables to find where exactly the waiter had landed. The girl in the red dress giggled again, and Gorchev turned for a moment, vexed. Oh, but she was pretty!

Gorchev ran straight to Vanek in the docks, though he was far from certain of finding him there. To his immense surprise, his secretary was still standing on the very same spot, in the very same attitude, in the very same swimming trunks. All that had changed was the toothpick, approximately his fifth since their last meeting.

“Vanek, good to see you! Your time has come.”

“So you’d like to hear about how I came to sink to my current sorry circumstances?” he asked at once, seeing his chance.

“No, that time hasn’t come. I’m sure it’s all fascinating and you can tell me later, given the right occasion.”

“Sir! I was a secretary at the finest…”

“Of course. You only have to look at you. But now it’s time to put you to work. You have to fetch a package for me.”

“Fetching packages is hardly secretarial work.”

“Even Napoleon started somewhere.”

“But not with you. Not that it matters. But I do have to know how heavy that package is. I think you know that I sustained a hernia.”

“Yes, I know. The package isn’t heavy.”

“And I can’t be in the sun too long. I suffer from hypertension.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way. You can buy an umbrella on the way and use it as a parasol.”

“My dear sir, you can hardly expect me to go around buying umbrellas on a measly three thousand francs a month!”

“I’ll pay for the umbrella. What’s more, buy some trousers – I’ll pay for those too. These bathing trunks are hardly fitting for a private secretary. And so to work, Vanek, old bone!”

“My name, if you don’t mind, is Vanek…”

“And so to work, Vanek!”

Jenő Rejtő: The Fourteen-Carat Car
Translated by Mark Baczoni
Budapest: Corvina, 2016

Previously on HLO:
Pen name: P. Howard



Translated by: Mark Baczoni

Tags: Hungarian Humour, Mark Baczoni, 14 Carat Car, Jenő Rejtő