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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Mór Jókai (1825–1904)

The Feat of Swallowing a Mouse

From “A Hungarian Nabob”

THE NABOB suddenly turned toward the landlord:

“Have you a mouse on the premises?”

“They are not mine, my Lord; I only rent the house. But as there are plenty of them, I don’t suppose the ground landlord will begin an action at law if I take one or two.”

“Then roast us a mouse.”

“Only one?”

“Plague on such a question! Do you take the belly of a man for the abyss of hell, to think that one such beast is not quite enough for it?”

“At your service, my Lord,” said the innkeeper; and he immediately called the cats into the room to assist him, though he had only to move a few stones away in order to be able to pick and choose his mouse quite as well as any cat could have done it for him.

And here I may say, by the way, that a mouse is such a nice, pretty little animal, that I cannot conceive why folks should hold it in such horror. It is very much the same thing as a squirrel or a guinea-pig, which we keep in our rooms and pet and play with; nay, it is cleverer far than they. What a delicate little snout it has, what sweet little ears, what wee little pets of feet! And then, its comically big mustache, and its quick black eyes like sparkling diamonds! And when it plays, when it squeaks, when it stands up to beat the air on its hind legs, it is as clever and as comely as any other animal in the world. Nobody is horrified at a crab being cooked, nobody flies in terror when snails are served up at table, yet they are both far more horrible animals than a mouse. What, then, is there so horrifying in the idea of cooking a mouse? Why, in China it is the greatest of delicacies, a lordly dish for epicures, and they fatten it in cages with nuts and almonds, and serve it up as the choicest of savories.

Nevertheless, the whole company was persuaded that the very idea of such a thing was the most exquisite of jokes, and every one laughed aloud in anticipation.

Meanwhile, while Peter Bús threw open a large barn-like room for his guests, the lackeys had unpacked the wagon, and dragged into the light of day cushions, curtains, camp-stools, and tables; and in a few moments the empty, resonant room was changed as if by magic into a sumptuous apartment. The table was piled high with silver goblets and dishes, and, reposing among the ice in large silver pitchers, flasks of carved Venetian crystal with long necks seemed to promise something seductive.

The nabob himself lay down on the camp-bedstead prepared for him, his lackeys drew the large spurred boots from his feet, one of the peasant-girls sat by his head stroking continually his sparse gray hairs, while the other sat at the end of the bed rubbing his feet with bits of flannel. Gyárfás, the poet, and Vidra, the jester, stood before him; a little farther off the lackeys; the greyhound was under the bed. And thus, surrounded by gipsy, lackeys, jester, peasant-girls, and greyhound, lay one of the wealthiest magnates of Hungary.

Meanwhile the mouse was a-roasting. The innkeeper himself brought it, lying in the middle of a large silver dish, surrounded by a heap of horseradish shavings, and with a bit of green parsley in its mouth, the usual appurtenances of a very different animal.

Down it was placed in the middle of the table.

First of all, the nabob offered it to the lackeys one by one. They did not fancy it, and only shook their heads.

Then it came to the poet’s turn.

“Pardon, your Excellency! I am composing verses on him who eats it.”

“Well, you, then, Vidra! Come, down with it, quick!”

“I, your Excellency?” said Vidra, as if he did not quite catch the words.

“Yes, you. What are you afraid of? While you were living in tents, one of my oxen went mad, and yet you and your people ate him.”

“True; and if one of your Lordship’s hogsheads of wine went mad I would drink it. That’s another thing.”

“Come, come, make haste! Do the dish honor.”

“But my grandfather had no quarrel with this animal.”

“Then rise superior to your grandpapa.”

“I’ll rise superior to him for a hundred Gulden,” said the gipsy, scratching his curly poll.

The nobleman opened the pocket of his jacket and drew forth a large greasy pocketbook, which he half opened, displaying a number of nice blood-colored bank-notes.

The gipsy squinted with half an eye at the well-crammed pocketbook, and repeated once more:

“For a hundred Gulden I don’t mind doing it.”

“Let us see, then!”

The gipsy thereupon unbuttoned the frock coat which it was his master’s whim he should wear, contracted his rotund, foolish face into a squarish shape, twitched the mobile skin of his head up and down once or twice, whereby the whole forest of his hair moved backward and forward like the topknot of a pewit, and then, seizing the horrible animal by that part of its body which was farthest from its head, and thereby raising it into the air, pulled an ugly, acidulous face, shook his head, constrained himself to a desperate resolution, opened his mouth, shut his eyes, and in an instant the mouse had disappeared.

The gipsy could not speak, but one of his hands involuntarily clutched his throat, for it is no joke to swallow a four-legged animal at a gulp; but his other hand he extended toward the nabob, gasping with something like a sob:

“The hundred Gulden!”

“What hundred Gulden?” inquired the humorous nobleman. “I said I’d give you a hundred Gulden? Nonsense, sir. You should thank me for providing you with such a rare dish, which your grandfather never ate, I’ll be bound to say, and would have paid for the chance of it.”

It was a screaming joke, no doubt; yet suddenly the merriment ceased, for the gipsy all at once began to turn blue and green, his eyes threatened to start out of his head, he sank down on his chair unable to speak, but pointed convulsively to his distended mouth.

“Look, look! He’s choking!” cried several voices.

The nabob was terribly alarmed. The joke had taken a decidedly serious turn.

“Pour wine into his throat to wash it down!” he exclaimed.

The lackeys speedily caught up the flasks and began to fill up the gipsy’s throat with half a bottle at a time, to assist the downward progress of the worthy mouse. After a long time the poor fellow began to breathe hard, and seemed to recover slightly; but his eyes rolled wildly, and he was gabbling something unintelligible.

“Well, take your hundred Gulden,” said the frightened magnate, who could scarcely contain himself for terror, and wished to comfort and compensate the gipsy on his return from Charon’s ferry-boat.

“Thank you,” sobbed the other, “but there’s no need of it now. It is all up with Vidra; Vidra is dying. If only it had been a wolf that had killed poor Vidra; but a mouse—oh, oh!”

“Don’t be a fool, man! You’ll take no harm from it. Look! here’s another hundred. Don’t take on so; it has quite gone now. Hit him on the back, some one, can’t you? Bring the venison on now, and make him swallow some of it!”

The jester thanked them for the thump on the back, and when they set the venison before him, he regarded it with the doubtful, ambiguous expression of a spoiled child, who does not know whether to laugh or to cry. First he laughed, and then he grumbled again, but finally he sat him down before the savory cold meat, which had been basted with the finest lard and flavored with good cream-like wine sauce, and began to cram himself full with morsel after morsel so huge that there was surely never a mouse in the wide world half so big. And thus he not only filled himself, but satisfied the nabob also.

And now, at a sign from the nabob, the lackeys carried in all the cold dishes they had brought with them, and shoved the loaded table along till it stood opposite the couch on which he lay. At the lower end of the table three camp-stools were placed, and on them sat the three favorites—the jester, the greyhound, and the poet. The magnate gradually acquired an appetite by watching these three creatures eat, and by degrees the wine put them all on the most familiar terms with one another, the poet beginning to call the gipsy “my Lord,” while the gipsy metaphorically buttonholed the nabob, who scattered petty witticisms on the subject of the mouse, whereat the two others were obliged to laugh with all their might.

At last, when the worthy gentleman really believed that it was quite impossible to play any more variations on the well-worn topic of the mouse, the gipsy suddenly put his hand to his bosom, and cried with a laugh, “Here’s the mouse!” And with that he drew it forth from the inside pocket of his frock coat, where he had shoved it unobserved, while the terrified company fancied he had swallowed it, and in sheer despair had soothed him by making him eat and drink all manner of good things.

“Look, Mat!” said he to the dog, whereupon the greyhound immediately swallowed the corpus delicti.

“You good-for-nothing rascal!” cried the nobleman, “so you’d bandy jests with me, would you! I’ll have you hanged for this. Here, you lackeys, fetch a rope! Hoist him upon that beam!”

The lackeys immediately took their master at his word. They seized the gipsy, who never ceased laughing, mounted him on a chair, threw the halter round his neck, drew the extreme end of the rope across the beam, and drew away the chair from beneath him. The gipsy kicked and struggled, but it was of no avail; there they kept him till he really began to choke, when they lowered him to the ground again.

But now he began to be angry. “I am dying,” he cried. “I am not a fool, that you should hoist me up again, when I can die as I am, like an honest gentleman.”

“Die, by all means,” said the poet. “Don’t be afraid. I’ll think of an epitaph for you.”

And while the gipsy flung himself on the ground and closed his eyes, Gyárfás recited this epitaph over him:

  • “Here liest thou, gipsy-lad, never to laugh any longer;
  • Another shall shoulder the fiddle, and death shall himself fiddle o’er thee.”
  • And, in fact, the gipsy never moved a limb. There he lay, prone, stiff, and breathless. In vain they tickled his nose and his heels; he did not stir. Then they placed him on the table with a circle of burning candles round him, like one laid out for burial, and the lackeys had to sing dirges over him, as over a corpse, while the poet was obliged to stand upon a chair and pronounce his funeral oration.

    And the nabob laughed till he got blue in the face.