About the Author
Sándor Márai’s Embers is available in Vintage paperback.
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
Read an Excerpt
It was at Mestre he stopped thinking; the dissolute friar, Balbi, had very nearly let the police get wind of him, because he had looked for him in vain as the mail coach set off, and only found him after a diligent search, in a coffeehouse, where he was blithely sipping a cup of chocolate and flirting with the waitress. By the time they reached Treviso their money was gone; they sneaked through the gates dedicated to St. Thomas, into the fields, and, by creeping along the backs of gardens and skirting the woods, managed to reach the outskirts of Valdepiadene about dawn. Here he took out his dagger, thrust it under the nose of his disgusting companion, and told him they'd meet again in Bolzano: then they parted. Father Balbi slunk off in a bad mood through a grove of olives, brushing past their bare trunks, a shabby, slovenly figure disappearing into the distance, casting the odd sullen look behind him, like a mangy dog dismissed by his master.
Once the friar had finally gone, he made for the central part of town and with a blind, sure instinct sought accommodation at the residence of the captain of the local militia. The captain's wife, a mild-mannered woman, received him, gave him supper, had his wounds cleaned--congealed blood was sticking to his knees and ankles, from the scraping he had given them when he had leaped off the lead roof--and, before falling asleep, he learned that the captain happened to be away searching for an escaped prisoner. He stole out in the early dawn and made a few more miles. He slept over in Pergine, and, three days later, arrived--by coach this time, having extorted six gold pieces from an acquaintance--in Bolzano.
Balbi was there waiting for him. They took rooms at The Stag. He had neither baggage nor topcoat and was ragged on arrival, rags being all that remained of his finecolored silk suit. A harsh November wind was already snapping at the narrow streets of Bolzano. The innkeeper nervously examined his tattered guests.
"The finest rooms?" he stuttered.
"The finest," came the quiet but firm answer. "And look to your kitchen staff. You tend to cook everything in rancid fat rather than in oil in these parts, and I haven't had a decent meal since leaving the republic! I want capon and chicken tonight, not one but three, with chestnuts. And get some Cyprus wine while you're at it. Are you staring at my clothes? Wondering why we have arrived without any luggage, empty handed? Don't you get news here? Don't you read the Leyden Gazette? Nincompoop!" he shouted in a cracked voice, having caught a chill on his journey, his windpipe seized by agonized coughing. "Have you not heard that a Venetian nobleman and his servants were robbed on the frontier? Have the police not been round yet?"
"No sir," answered the frightened innkeeper.
Balbi sniggered into his sleeve. They were eventually shown to the finest rooms: a parlor with two big casement windows giving onto the main square, furniture with gilded legs and a Venetian glass above the fireplace. There was a French four-poster in the bedchamber. Balbi's room was at the end of the corridor, at the foot of steep and narrow stairs that led to the servants' quarters. The accommodation was greatly to his satisfaction.
"My secretary," he said to the innkeeper, indicating Balbi.
"The police are very strict," apologized the innkeeper. "They'll be here any moment. They register all visitors."
"Tell them," he carelessly answered, "that you have a nobleman as guest. A gentleman..."
"Indeed!" enthused the innkeeper, now humble and curious, bowing deeply, his tasseled cap in his hand.
"A gentleman from Venice!" he affirmed.
He pronounced this as though it were some extraordinary title or rank. Even Balbi pricked up his ears at the tone of his voice. Then he wrote his name in a precise and expert hand in the guest book. The innkeeper was red with excitement: he wiped his temples with a fat finger and couldn't make up his mind whether to run to the police station or to go down on his knees and kiss the man's hand. Being undecided he simply stood there in silence.
Eventually he lit a lantern and escorted his guests up the stairs. The servants were busying themselves about the apartment: they brought large gilt candlesticks, warm water in a silver jug, and canvas towels manufactured in Limburg. The visitor undressed slowly, in regal fashion, like a king at his toilette. He handed his filthy garments one by one to the innkeeper and his servants, his blood-bespotted silk pantaloons having to be cut away on both sides with scissors because they were sticking to him, and then soaked his feet in a silver bowl full of water while leaning back in an armchair, matted and solemn, almost faint with exhaustion. At certain points he dropped into sleep, mumbled, and cried out. Balbi, the innkeeper, and the servants came and went about him with open mouths, making up the bed in the chamber, drawing the curtains, and snuffing out almost all the candles. They had to knock at his door for some time when it came to supper. As soon as he had eaten he fell fast asleep, and remained sleeping till noon the next day, his face smooth and untroubled, as indifferent as a day-old corpse.
"A gentleman," said the girls, giggling, whispering, and singing as they went about their tasks in the kitchen and the cellar, washing cutlery, wiping plates, chopping up firewood, serving in the bar, now talking in low voices with fingers held to their mouths, now giggling again, eventually calming down, and passing on the news officiously then laughing: a gentleman, yes, a gentleman, from Venice. In the evening two men from the secret service appeared, drawn by his name, that name so notorious and irresistible, so dangerous and fascinating, a name redolent of adventures and flight, a name that attracted the secret service in whatever town it appeared. And they wanted to know everything about him. Is he asleep?...Has he no luggage?
"A dagger," replied the innkeeper. "He arrived with a dagger. That is his sole possession."
"A dagger," they repeated, nodding vigorously, bemused. "What kind of dagger?" the secret service men inquired.
"A Venetian dagger," answered the innkeeper, in awed tones.
"Nothing else?" they insisted.
"Nothing," the innkeeper said. "Nothing but a dagger. That's all he has."
The information took the secret service men by surprise. They would not have been amazed to find that he had arrived bearing loot: precious stones, spirits, necklaces, and rings that he had slipped off the fingers of innocent women as he traveled. His reputation preceded him like a herald announcing his name. The prelate had already sent word to the police chief that morning, requesting the force to send the notorious guest on his way. That same morning, and after mass in the evening, the taverns of Tyrol and Lombardy were full of tales of his escape.
"Watch him," the secret service men said. "Watch him carefully and take note of every word he says. You have to be extremely wary of him. If he receives any mail you must find out who it is from. If he sends any, you must find out where it is addressed. Observe his every movement! It seems," they whispered into the innkeeper's ear, cupping their hands, "that he has a protector. Not even his grace, the prelate, can touch him."
"Not for the time being," added the innkeeper, sagely.
"Not for the time being," echoed the secret service men, solemnly.
They departed on tiptoe, with gloomy expressions, oppressed by their cares. The innkeeper sat down in the tavern and sighed. He didn't like notorious guests who roused the prelate's or the police's suspicion. He thought of the guest himself, the dark fires and embers that flickered in his sleepy eyes, and he was afraid. He thought of the dagger, the Venetian dagger, his guest's sole possession, and was even more afraid. He thought of the news that dogged his guest's footsteps and he began, silently, to curse.
"Teresa!" he barked angrily.
A girl entered, already dressed for bed. She was sixteen and held a burning candle in one hand while clutching her nightshirt with the other.
"Listen to me," he whispered, and invited her to sit on his knee. "I can't trust anyone except you. We have dangerous guests, Teresa. That gentleman..."
"From Venice?" the girl asked in a singsong schoolgirl voice.
"Venice yes, Venice," he muttered nervously. "Straight from prison. Where the rats are. And the scaffold. Listen, Teresa. Mark his every word. Let your eyes and ears be ever at his keyhole. I love you like a daughter. Indeed, I have brought you up as I would my daughter, but if he calls you into the room, do not hesitate. Enter. You will take his breakfast in to him. Guard your virtue and watch him."
"I will," said the girl, then got up to return to her room, delicate as a shadow. At the door she stopped and complained in a thin, childish voice.
"I am afraid."
"Me too," said the innkeeper. "Now go to sleep. But first bring me a glass of red wine."
All the same, none of them slept well that first night.
They slept in flurries, snoring, panting, and puffing, and, as they slept, were aware that something was happening to them. They sensed that someone was walking through the house. They sensed someone was calling them and that they should answer in ways they had never answered before. The question posed by the stranger was insolent, saucy, aggressive, and, above all, frightening and sad. But by the time they awoke in the morning they had forgotten it.
While they were sleeping the news rapidly spread: he had arrived, had escaped the Leads, had managed to row away from his birthplace in broad daylight, had thumbed his nose at their graces the terrifying lords of the Inquisition, had run rings round Lawrence the militia chief, had sprung the unfrocked friar, had more or less strolled from the doges' citadel, had been spotted in Mestre bargaining with the driver of the mail coach, been observed sipping vermouth in a coffeehouse in Treviso, and there was one peasant who swore he had seen him at the border putting a spell on his cows. The news spread through Venetian palazzos, through suburban inns, and as it did so, cardinals, their graces the senators, hangmen, secret agents, spies, cardsharps, lovers and husbands, girls at mass and women in warm beds, laughed and exclaimed, "Hoho!" Or in full throat, with deep satisfaction, laughed out loud, "Haha!" Or giggled into their pillows or handkerchiefs, "Teehee!" Everyone was delighted he had escaped. By next evening the news had been announced to the Pope, who recalled him, remembering when he had personally presented him with some minor papal award, and he couldn't help laughing. The news spread: in Venice, gondoliers leaned on their long oars and closely analyzed all the technical details of his escape and were glad, glad because he was a Venetian, because he had outwitted the authorities, and because there was someone stronger than tyrants or stones and chains, stronger even than the Leads. They spoke quietly, spitting into the water and rubbing their palms with satisfaction. The news spread and people's hearts grew warm on hearing it. "What crime had he committed, after all?" they asked. "He gambled, and, good God, he might not have played an entirely honest hand, he certainly ran tables in low bars and wore a mask when playing with professional gamblers! But this was Venice, after all! Who didn't?...And yes, he roughed up a few people who betrayed him and he lured women to his rented apartment in Murano, a little way from town, but how else do you spend your youth in Venice? And of course he was impudent, had a quick tongue and talked a lot. But was anyone silent in Venice?..."
So they muttered and, every so often, laughed. Because there was something good about the news, something satisfying and heartwarming. Because everyone knew the Inquisition had its teeth in one or another piece of their own flesh, that one or another part of them was already living in the Leads, and now somebody had demonstrated that a man could overcome despotism, lead roofs, and the police, that he was stronger than the messer grande, the emissary of the hangman, and the bringer of bad news. The news spread: in police stations they were slamming files on tables, officers went round shouting, magistrates listened with reddened ears to those accused of crimes and angrily sent men to prison, into exile, to the galleys, or to the scaffold. They spoke of him in churches, preached against him after mass for having concentrated all seven deadly sins in one accursed body, which, according to the priest, would boil in its own individual cauldron, then roast in a fire especially set aside for it in hell, forever. His name was even mentioned in the confessional booth by women with heads bowed low, who beat their breasts while accepting the prescribed penance. And everyone was pleased, for something good had happened in Venice, and in every village and town of the republic he passed through.
They slept, and smiled as they dreamed. Wherever he went they took greater care than usual to close their windows and doors by night, and behind closed shutters men would spend a long time talking to their wives. It was as if every feeling that yesterday had been ashes and embers had started to smoke and spout flames. He cast no spells on cows, but cowherds swore that calves born that year were prettier and that there were more of them. Women woke, fetched water from the well in wooden buckets, kindled fires in their kitchens, warmed pans of milk, set fruit out on glazed trays, suckled their infants, fed the men, swept out the bedrooms, changed the beds, and smiled as they worked. It was a smile that took some time to disappear from Venice, Tyrol, and Lombardy. The smile spread like a highly active and harmless infection: it even spread over the borders, so that they had heard of it in Munich, and waited for it, smiling in readiness, as they did in Paris where the tale of his escape was recounted to the king while he was hunting in the deer park, and he too smiled. And it was known in Parma, and in Turin, Vienna, and Moscow. And everywhere there was smiling. And the policemen, the magistrates, the militiamen and the spies--everyone whose business it was to keep people in the grip of fear of the authorities--went about their work suspiciously and in ill temper. Because there is nothing quite as dangerous as a man who will not yield to despotism.