01. 21. 2008. 08:58

The Voice from the Past (short story)

Gyula Krúdy

"The key turned twice in the lock, and ten years flew by. What did Sindbad do in those ten years? Perhaps no one cares. The days of his youth were gone, and with them his stern father, the two cheerful and wise tutors, his spirit of enterprise which in times past had led him to willingly court adventure; he no longer considered women perfect angels."

The key turned twice in the lock, and ten years flew by. What did Sindbad do in those ten years? Perhaps no one cares. The days of his youth were gone, and with them his stern father, the two cheerful and wise tutors, his spirit of enterprise which in times past had led him to willingly court adventure; he no longer considered women perfect angels. It was summer, and one evening Sindbad was pensively reading the green and red playbills of small theatres on the corner of the street. The theatrical company of Krisztinaváros was playing Rip van Winkle, and Sindbad had always had a fondness for this piece. He ran his eyes absentmindedly down the list of players, and for some reason thought it quite natural to find the name Irma H. Galamb among them. He read the name two or three times, and the conviction that he was acquainted with Irma H. Galamb, that she was an old acquaintance, slowly emerged and took hold of his mind.
 
He walked on with a melancholy smile, and suddenly caught himself stealing surreptitious glances at his pale tired face and clothing in shop-windows. A little while later he entered a florist's and bought a boutonniere of corn-flowers for his coat... He got a shave at a barber's, and while his face was thickly coated with lather, he stared at his reflection in the mirror, finding it unfamiliar, as if he had not seen his greying hair, his eyes become mournful, his white brow which was like the brow of the dead, for a very long time.
 
”Sindbad”, he thought to himself, ”poor, foolish Sindbad, what kind of folly are you about to embark upon now?”
 
His thoughts wandered. Voices from the past, long-forgotten phrases echoed in his mind. He recalled the philosophizing of Mr Potrobányi: ”A man who has never acted foolishly in his life is not a real man,” the good man had said when Sindbad had proposed to marry at the age of eighteen. He heard the thudding of skittle-balls from afar (perhaps from the gardens of the Hársfa restaurant) and saw a red window at the back of the wooden playhouse, from where the laughter of the dressing actresses sounded as if green, iridescent beetles were flying in the night, out of the window glowing with a reddish light. Then K. Nagy, the retired actor coughed somewhere in the distance – perhaps from behind the barber's curtain, and choking with laughter, gasping for breath, said: ”Sindbad, for every kiss that you've missed, they'll stick an old slipper on your nose in the netherworld!...” He thereupon resolved to go to Buda, and attempt to win the heart of Irma H. Galamb again, and to secure from her the kiss that was his due from the past; the kiss he sometimes still dreamed of on sleepless nights, when he had forgotten all the kisses he had ever received, and yearned for that one kiss, the kiss of Irma Galamb, which he had missed. The white knees and rounded shoulders that appeared before him when he closed his eyes were the knees and shoulders of Irma Galamb. The skirt flounces that tickled his face as he drowsed, the fragrances that floated about his head like wisps of cloud before the moon, all reminded him of Irma Galamb on the nights he lay motionless on his bed, as though in a coffin. And he softly sighed: ”Will I always be thinking of women, even in my grave, six feet under the ground?”
 
”At your service!” said the barber, and soon Sindbad was travelling in the box-seat of an omnibus towards Buda, raising his hat, much moved, his heart warming, as they passed over the Chain Bridge, and his eyes roved over the wide Danube river, and he pictured himself as the romantic hero of a beautiful old novel. ”I am going for the heart that is mine!” he whispered into the balmy night, and thought of dark-skinned pirates who hid their treasure on desert islands, intending to return for them sometime.
 
The playhouse was quite full, and for a while Sindbad stood in the gallery, where students usually stand. The orchestra began to play, the chorus broke into song, and in the nearby tower the clock struck the hour with a deep clang. Then Irma Galamb came on stage. She wore a pink tarlatan skirt and patent-leather shoes on her black-stockinged feet. She was Lisbeth, and her fair hair, thickly powdered and gathered into a knot, lay on her plump white neck. As she sang two lines appeared on her chin and her face, seen through the opera-glass, seemed pockmarked, as if from childhood. ”That is because of all the paint”, thought Sindbad to himself, ”The faces of all actresses appear so sooner or later."
 
Then he looked at her ears, which were small and pink, and her nose too was just as it had been, delicately curved and tantalizing; her teeth gleamed as she smiled, everything about her was the same, and yet Sindbad smiled sorrowfully behind the opera-glass. For him the laugh-lines could not hide the sad signs of fading beauty... Irma was faded, like a yellow tea rose after the ball, after the dancing, left behind on the cushions of the carriage, fallen there from a woman's hair. She was faded like the melody that the orchestra was playing. (In his mind's eye Sindbad saw a gallant wearing checked trousers and a dyed moustache strolling in the Museum gardens under the red-gold leafy boughs, whose lack-lustre eyes were fixed with a languid smile upon the ankles of housemaids and young nursemaids in their colourful stockings...) The voice, which he at first did not register, sounded deeper and lower in tone, and the white blouse tightened on her shoulders as she began to sing full-throatedly at a sign from the conductor. ”You pretty, faded rose!” murmured Sindbad, and his heart filled with gentle melancholy. ”I wonder if you ever thought of me?”
 
...But under the corset Lisbeth's figure appeared well-made and pleasing on stage, and later, when Sindbad sent in his card to the dressing room, he thought to himself:
 
”What harm can it do, if she consents to dine with me beneath a tall tree in a tavern in Buda?”
 
”Yes, you may wait for her and speak with her after the performance,” was the reply the dresser brought, and upon hearing it Sindbad slipped two pengos into the woman's hand with a gesture befitting a Russian prince.
 
Behind the scenes in the wings, where students and young journalists stood smoking, Sindbad waited self-consciously for some time. He turned up the collar of his overcoat and tipped his hat over his eyes. At last a woman in a red cloak appeared from the gloom and stopped on the stairs, looking to the left and right.
 
Sindbad caught sight of her and raised his hat:
 
”Did you remember me at once?” he asked.
 
”Well, have I forgotten you?” replied the actress, chuckling. ”What fine moustaches you've grown! And your shoulders are broader as well. You used to be so thin, so frail-looking as a boy, and now you've become a proper man. Well? Only your eyes, your eyes are the same. There is still a look of childlike naivety about your eyes... And I? What about me? I've grown old, haven't I?
 
”You bewitched me at once, as you did before. Your eyes, your hair, your face is enchanting...
 
”And my voice?”
 
”Upon hearing your voice I became young again, a merry student, and for this reason I thought I would make bold to ask if we might not spend the evening together, if you are not otherwise occupied. It is a pity, a great pity that my tutors, whom you found so amusing, cannot be here in the tavern close by...”
 
”Your tutors?” asked Irma quietly, and walked on deep in thought. Then softly she added:
 
”Very well – I shall have supper with you, but let me state in advance that I will not permit you to treat either me or my friend, who shall be here any moment. Agreed?”
 
Sindbad did not reply, for he had just then noted with surprise that there was a scar on Irma's neck, which had not been there before. His eyes fixed on the wound, and the actress, noticing this, unbuttoned her glove and showed him her hand.
 
”Here, too,” she said in a pensive voice. ”I was in love, and wished to die. Do you not read newspapers?”
 
”Whom did you wish to die for?” asked Sindbad, his spirits sinking.
 
”For someone...” laughed the actress. Her laughter became softer, plaintive, and despondently she continued: ”For someone... someone... Perhaps for you.”
 
Sindbad took a step back, and stared fixedly into Irma's eyes. The woman smiled at him musingly, as though through a veil, then silently looked away.
 
”Here comes my friend!”
 
The friend – a lean, angry-faced woman – grasped Sindbad's hand firmly, soldierlike, and boldly announced her name:
 
”Mira Már.”
 
Translated by Eszter Molnár
 
This short story was published in Gyula Krúdy: The Knight of Dreams. The Journeys of Sindbad and Other Stories. Noran Books, 1999. Contact the publisher at noran@noran.hu.
 
Previously on HLO
The Knight of Fogginess: Gyula Krúdy (1878–1933): a portrait

Tags: Gyula Krúdy