Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Viola in Court

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Viola in Court

By József Eötvös (1813–1871)

From ‘The Village Notary’

THE APPEARANCE of the prisoner produced a profound sensation in the court. Kishlaki felt deep pity for his misfortunes, though he could not but admit that his fate was in part merited. Völgyeshy, who had heard enough to convince him that there was no hope of the court pronouncing in favor of Viola, shuddered to think that the man whom he saw was doomed to die before sunset. Mr. Catspaw showed great uneasiness when he heard the rattling of the chains; and Shoskuty, who had never seen the robber, was quite as much excited by his curiosity as Mr. Skinner by the feelings of ill-dissembled triumph with which he watched the prisoner’s features and carriage. Zatonyi alone preserved his habitual composure.

“At last you’ve put your head in the snare, you precious villain!” cried Mr. Skinner. “Well, what do you say? Whose turn is it to be hanged? Yours or mine, eh?”

The president of the court looked amazed; but Mr. Skinner laughed, and said:—

“Perhaps you are not aware of my former acquaintance with Viola? There’s a bet between us two, who is to hang first; for that fellow has sworn to hang me if ever I fall into his hands. Is it not so, Viola?”

“No,” said the prisoner, “it’s not so. If I swore I would be revenged, it is well known that I had good cause for it; I have to thank this gentleman for my wretched life and shameful death. But I never vowed to hang you!”

“Never mind!” shouted the justice. “You are humble enough, now that you are in the trap; but I am sure you would have kept your word if you had been able to put your hands upon me. I too have sworn an oath, to hang you where I find you—now tell me who has the worst of it?”

“I know that all is over with me,” replied Viola, fixing his dark eyes upon the justice; “there is no one to take my part—I know I must die; but it is cruel to insult a dying man.”

Völgyeshy, who was scarcely able to repress his feelings, interfered, and protested in Latin that there was a vendetta between the accused and one of the judges, and that another judge must be found. But his protest had no other effect than an admonition, which the president gave Mr. Skinner in very bad Latin, to eschew such light and irrelevant conversation; and the court commenced forthwith to examine the prisoner.

Viola replied calmly and simply to the questions which were put to him; and at last, as though wearied by the length of the examination, he said:—

“What is the use of all this questioning? It is a pity the gentlemen should lose their time with me. Mr. Skinner has told me that I am to be hanged; why then should I waste my words in an attempt to save my life? I’ll confess anything you like, I don’t care what it is; for believe me, if it had not been for my family, I would never have waited till this day. I would have hanged myself in the forest to make an end of it, I assure you.”

“But how can you possibly confess, when you are ignorant of what you are accused of?” said Völgyeshy. “You stand before righteous judges. Speak out, man, honestly and freely, as you would speak to God; for believe me, the judges are by no means agreed upon your sentence.”

“Thanks to you for your good-will,” said the culprit; “but I know there is no help. I am a robber; I have been taken in arms; they will hang me. They may do it: but let them make haste; and spare me your questions!”

Mr. Catspaw, who showed some uneasiness, interposed, and said:—

“If he refuses to confess, we cannot force him: it is expressly set forth in the articles that no violence is to be used to obtain a confession. Our best plan is to read the questions to him, and if he refuses to answer them, why, it’s his own business, not ours.”

“No,” said Völgyeshy; “this man ought to know that his fate does not depend on the decision of the worshipful Mr. Paul Skinner; that the court are prepared to listen to his defense, and that the verdict will be dictated neither by hate nor revenge, but by pure and impartial justice. If the prisoner knows all this, which it appears he does not, he may possibly be induced to reply to the charges.”

He turned to Viola, and continued:—

“Speak out, my man. Your life is in the hands of these gentlemen, who have to answer for it to God, your Judge and theirs. Pray consider that unless you speak, there is no hope for you. Think of your family; and, tell us plainly, is there anything you have to say for yourself?”

Kishlaki was deeply moved; Mr. Catspaw cast an angry look at the speaker, and Zatonyi yawned.

“I will not speak in my own defense!” said the prisoner.

“Pray consider,” urged the young lawyer; “the court will listen to anything you may say. These gentlemen have a painful duty to fulfill; but they are far from wishing to take your life. If you can give us any excuses, do so, by all means.”

“It is provided in Chapter 6 of the Articles, that the prisoner shall not be wheedled into a confession,” said Zatonyi, with an expression of profound wisdom.

“Gentlemen,” said Viola at length, “may God bless you for your kindness, and for your wishing to help me! but you see it’s all in vain. There are indeed many things I might say in defense; and when I go to my God, who knows all and everything, I am sure he’ll judge me leniently; but there is no salvation for me in this world. You see, your worships, there is no use of my telling you that once upon a time I was an honest man, as every man in the village of Tissaret can prove. What is the use of my saying that I became a robber not from my own free will, but because I was forced to it; that I never harmed any poor man; that I never took more from the gentry, in the way of robbing, than what was necessary to keep life in my body; and that I never killed any one, unless it was in self-defense? Am I the less punishable for saying all this? No. Whatever my comrades may have done is scored down to my account. I am a robber and a dead man.”

“All this may serve to modify the sentence. But what do you mean by saying that you were forced to be a robber?”

“Ask his worship, the justice of the district,” said the prisoner, looking at Mr. Skinner; “he knows what made me a robber.” And he proceeded to tell the tale of his first crime.

“It’s true; its true as gospel,” sighed Kishlaki. “I came to Tissaret on the day after the thing had happened, when the sheriff told me all about it.”

“Nihil ad rem!” said Zatonyi.

“But what does it avail me?” continued the prisoner, whose pale face became flushed as he spoke. “What can it avail me to tell you all the revolting cruelties which were practiced against me, and which to think of gives me pain? Am I the less a robber? Will these things cause you to spare me? No; I ought to have suffered the stripes, and kissed the hands of my tyrant; or I ought to have left my wife in her darkest hour, because nothing would serve my lady but that I should drive her to Dustbury. How then could I, a good-for-nothing peasant, dare to love my wife! How could I dare to resist when the justice told them to tie me to the whipping-post! But I dared to do it. I was fool enough to fancy that I, though a peasant, had a right to remain with my wife; I could not understand that a poor man is a dog, which anybody may beat and kick. Here I am, and you may hang me.”

“I’ll tell you what, you’ll swing fast enough, my fine fellow!” said Zatonyi, whose cynicism was not proof against the prisoner’s last words. “What, man! hanging’s too good for you; that’s all I have to say!”

“You see, sir,” said Viola, appealing to Völgyeshy, “you see there is nothing that can excuse me in the eyes of mankind. But there’s a request I have to address to the court.”

Mr. Catspaw trembled, as the prisoner went on.

“When I left the burning hut in which Ratz Andor shot himself, I held some papers in my hands, which were stolen from the house of the notary of Tissaret.”

“So you confess to the robbery?” cried Zatonyi.

“No, sir; I do not. God knows I am guiltless of that robbery,” cried Viola, raising his hands to heaven; “but that’s no matter. All I say is that I had the papers, and that I took them away with me; and if you mean to prove by that that I committed the robbery, you may. I do not care: all I say is, that I took the papers with me.”

“It’s a lie!” murmured Mr. Skinner.

“No; it’s not a lie; it’s the truth, and nothing but the truth! When I left the hut I was blind and unarmed: I held the papers in my hands, and I felt some one snatch them away from me—I can take my oath on it!—and my senses left me; when I recovered I was bound, and in the hands of the Pandurs and peasants. They dragged me to St. Vilmosh. I asked for the papers, for they belong to Mr. Tengelyi: and it was for their sake I surrendered, because I did not wish them to be burned; for they are the notary’s important papers. But I understand that when I left the hut there was no one by except the justice and Mr. Catspaw; and the justice says that I had no papers. I most humbly beseech the court to order the justice to give those papers to the rightful owner.”

“May the devil take me by ounces, if I’ve seen the least rag of paper!” cried Mr. Skinner.

“Sir,” said Viola, “I am in your power: you may do with me as you please; you may hang me if you like; but for God’s sake do not deny me the papers. I am under great obligations to Mr. Tengelyi. He relieved my family in the time of their distress; and I wish to show my gratitude by restoring those papers to him. I have come to suffer a disgraceful death—”

“You impertinent dog!” cried Mr. Skinner: “how dare you insinuate? how dare you say? how dare you— I am insulted; I insist on the court giving me satisfaction.”

“I am in the hands of the court,” said the prisoner. “Beat me, kick me, torture me; but give me the papers!”

“I am sure it’s a plot,” whispered Mr. Catspaw to the assessor. “Tengelyi declares that his diplomas are gone. Who knows but he may be a patron of this fellow?”

“Nothing is more likely,” replied the assessor.

“What, fellow! what, dog! do you mean to say that I stole the papers?”

“All I say is, that I had the papers in my hands, and that some person took them away. I wish the court would please to examine the Pandurs, who will tell you that nobody was near me but the justice and Mr. Catspaw.”

“This is indeed strange,” murmured Mr. Kishlaki. Mr. Skinner pushed his chair back, and cried:—

“The court cannot possibly suffer one of its members to be accused of theft!”

“Yes, too much is too much,” said Zatonyi, with a burst of generous indignation; “if you do not revoke your words, and if you do not ask their worships’ pardon, we will send you to the yard and have you whipped!”

Viola answered quietly that he was in their worships’ power, but that he would repeat what he had said to the last moment of his life; and Zatonyi was just about to send the prisoner away to be whipped, when Völgyeshy reminded him in Latin that the Sixth Chapter of the Articles made not only prohibition of what the assessor had been pleased to term “wheedling,” but also of threats and ill-treatment.

Baron Shoskuty remarked that the young lawyer’s explanation of the articles was sheer nonsense; for the prisoner would not be under restraint if Mr. Völgyeshy’s commentaries were accepted as law. He might call the worshipful magistrates asses; nay, he might even go to the length of beating them, without suffering any other punishment than being hanged. This able rejoinder induced the judges to reconsider Mr. Zatonyi’s proposition to inflict corporal punishment on the prisoner; and nobody can say what would have come of it but for the firmness of Völgyeshy, who protested that he would inform the lord-lieutenant and the government of any act of violence to which they might subject the culprit. This threat had its effect. Baron Shoskuty, indeed, was heard to murmur against the impertinence of young men, while Mr. Zatonyi made some edifying reflections about sneaking informers; but this was all. No further mention was made of the whipping.

While the above conversation was being carried on in a tongue of which he could but catch the sounds and not the meaning, Viola stood quietly by, although a lively interest in the words and motions of the speakers was expressed in his face. Messrs. Catspaw and Skinner conversed in a whisper. At length the attorney turned round and addressed the court:—

“As the prisoner has thought proper to accuse me,” said he, “it is but right that I should be allowed to ask him a few questions. You said I was near you when you left the hut, did you not? Now tell me, did you see me at the time?”

“No, I did not; I was blind with the smoke and fire in the hut; but the peasants told me that the two gentlemen were near me, and I felt somebody snatch the papers from my hand.”

“Do you mean to say that the smoke in the hut was very dense?”

“I could not see through it; at times the flames were so fierce that they nearly blinded me.”

“But how did you manage to save the papers?”

“They lay by my side on my bunda. I seized them and took them out. They were wrapped in a blue handkerchief.”

“He speaks the truth,” said Mr. Catspaw smiling; “or rather he tells us what he believes to be the truth. He held something in his hand, when he rushed from the hut more like a beast than like a human creature, I assure you, my honorable friends. I was not at all sure whether it was not a weapon of defense; I snatched it away, and on examination I identified it as a most harmless handkerchief, which certainly was wrapped round some soft substance. But,” continued he, addressing the prisoner, “if you fancy you saved the papers, my poor fellow, you are much mistaken, indeed you are! My dear Mr. Skinner, pray fetch the parcel which we took from Viola at the time of his capture.”

Mr. Skinner rose and left the room.

“The papers were in the handkerchief, I’ll swear!” said Viola; but his astonishment and rage were unbounded when the judge returned with the parcel, which on examination was found to contain a pair of cotton drawers. He knew it was the handkerchief, the same in which he had wrapped the papers, and yet they were not there! How could he prove that they had been stolen?

“I trust my honorable friends are convinced,” said Mr. Catspaw, “that the wretched man has no intention of imposing upon the court. I believe, indeed, nothing can be more probable than that he was possessed of Tengelyi’s documents; and it is likewise very probable that he intended to save those papers; but according to his own statement, he was half blind with the fire and smoke, and instead of the papers he took another parcel—some other booty, perhaps. Nothing can be more natural—”

“Yes, indeed!” interposed Baron Shoskuty. “Nemo omnibus!—you know! Awkward mistakes will happen. Perhaps you will be pleased to remember the fire in the house of the receiver of revenues in the —— county. The poor man was so bewildered with fear that all he managed to get out of the house was a pair of old boots. The whole of the government money was burned. The visiting justices found the money-box empty—empty, I say! All the bank-notes were burned, and nothing was left but a small heap of ashes.”

“Gentlemen!—” said Viola at length; but Mr. Catspaw interrupted him.

“I implore my honorable friends not to resent anything this wretched creature may say! I am sure he speaks from his conscience; nor is he deserving of chastisement. He is a prey to what we lawyers term ‘Ignorantia invincibilis’!”

“Of course! of course!” said Baron Shoskuty. “It’s a legal remedy, you know.”

“Gentlemen!” said the prisoner, “I am a poor condemned criminal, but the judge and Mr. Catspaw are mighty men. And I am doomed to appear this day before God’s judgment seat! What motive should I have for not telling you the truth? May I be damned now and forever—yes, and may God punish my children to the tenth generation—if the papers were not in this very cloth!”

“I told you so!” said Mr. Catspaw, still smiling. “I knew it. This man is doting—‘borné,’ to use a French term. He’d say the same if we were to put him on the rack!—It’s all very natural,” said he to the prisoner. “You’ve made a mistake, that’s all. Pray be reasonable, and consider, if you had brought Mr. Tengelyi’s papers from the hut, what reason could I or Mr. Skinner have for refusing to produce them?”

“Of course!” said Baron Shoskuty. “What reason could these gentlemen have? How is it possible to suppose such a thing?”

Viola was silent. He stood lost in deep and gloomy thoughts. At last he raised his head and asked that the attendants might be sent away, adding, “I am in chains, and there are no less than six of you. You are safe, I assure you.”

The room was cleared. Viola looked at Mr. Catspaw, and said:—

“What I have to tell you will astonish you all, except Mr. Catspaw. I never wished to mention it, and I would not now allow the servants to hear it; for my wife and children live at Tissaret, and the Retys may perhaps be induced to pity the poor orphans. But if it is asked what reason the attorney can have for not producing the notary’s papers, I will simply say that Mr. Catspaw is most likely to know his own mind and his own reasons—and good reasons they must be—to induce him to bribe somebody to steal the papers; for to tell you the truth, it was he who planned the robbery.”

The attorney trembled.

“Really, this man is malicious!” cried he. “I am curious to know what can induce him to accuse an honest man of such a thing.”

“Don’t listen to his nonsense!” said Baron Shoskuty.

But Mr. Völgyeshy insisted on the prisoner’s being heard, and Viola told them the history of the robbery, from the evening on which he had listened to the attorney’s conversation with Lady Rety, to the night in which he seized the Jew in Tengelyi’s house, knocking him down, and fled with the papers. The only circumstances which he did not mention were the fact of his having been hid in the notary’s house when Messrs. Catspaw and Skinner pursued him in Tissaret, and his conversations with the Liptaka and Peti. Mr. Catspaw listened with a smile of mingled fear and contempt; and when Viola ceased speaking, he asked for permission to put a few questions to the prisoner.

“Not, indeed,” said he, “for the purpose of defending myself or Lady Rety against so ridiculous an accusation; but merely to convince this fellow of the holes, nay, of the large gaps, in his abominable tissue of falsehoods.” And turning to Viola he asked:—

“Did you inform anybody of the conversation which you pretend to have overheard between me and Lady Rety?”

“No, I did not.”

“Pray consider my question. Is there any one to whom you said that some one wished to steal the notary’s papers? We ought to know your associates. Now, did you not speak to Peti the gipsy, or to that old hag the Liptaka?”

Viola persisted in denying the fact. He was too well aware of the disastrous consequence this avowal would have for his friends.

Mr. Catspaw went on.

“Where did you hide at the time we pursued you at Tissaret?”

Viola replied that he was not in Tissaret.

“Do you mean to say that you were not in the village?”


The attorney sent for the old Liptaka, to whom he read her depositions, from which it appeared that the prisoner attempted to inform Tengelyi of the intended robbery.

“What do you say to this evidence?” added he.

“That it is true, every word of it. I’ll swear to the truth of my words!” said she.

“Viola has confessed,” said Mr. Catspaw, “that he told you of the matter when hiding in the notary’s house, while we pursued him through Tissaret. Is there any truth in this statement?”

The Liptaka, feeling convinced that Viola must have confessed as much, said it was quite true, but that Tengelyi was ignorant of the prisoner’s presence. The old woman was sent away, and Mr. Catspaw, turning to the court, asked triumphantly:—

“Did you ever hear of such impertinence? The prisoner protests that he did not inform anybody of the alleged intended robbery; and the old woman swears that Viola did inform her, for the purpose of cautioning the notary. Then again, the old woman did not say anything to the notary, without having any ostensible reason for not doing what she alleges she promised to do. The prisoner will have it that he was not in Tissaret at the time we pursued him; and the witness—why, gentlemen, the witness deposes that the subject in question was mentioned to her at that very time. I say, you great fool! if you had time for another batch of lies, I would advise you to make out a better story. But let us go on. Who told you that the Jew and Tzifra intended to rob the notary?”

“I cannot answer that question,” replied Viola.

“Indeed? What a pity! I’d like to know the gentleman who gives you such correct information; unless, indeed, you keep a ‘familiaris,’—a devil, I mean.”

“The only thing I told you was that I knew of the robbery.”

“But how did you know of it?”

“The Jew and Tzifra talked about it in the pot-house near Dustbury.”

“Were you present? Did you hear them?”

“No; I had it from a friend.”

“I’m sure it was your ‘familiaris,’ your devil,—your artful dodger!” said Mr. Catspaw smiling; “but since you knew that the robbery was to take place, why did you not inform the justice of it?”

“I was outlawed; a prize was offered for my head.”

“Indeed, so it was; but your friend—why did not he inform the proper authorities? Was he also wanted? and if so, why did he not inform Tengelyi, or Mr. Vandory, who I understand has likewise lost his papers?”

“I cannot tell you. Perhaps he did not find the notary. At all events, he knew that I would prevent the robbery, so he told me of it.”

“A very extraordinary thing, this!” said Mr. Catspaw; “for a man to apply to a robber with a view to prevent a robbery! And you wanted to prevent the robbery, did you not? Now tell me, did you set about it by yourself? And what became of your comrade—I mean the man who told you about it? Did he too go to Tissaret?”

“There was no occasion for it.”

“Still, it is very extraordinary that you should not have hunted in couples, knowing as you did that there were two men to commit the robbery. What a capital thing for you, if you could summon your comrades to explain it all! For if some went to Tissaret to prevent the robbery, there can be no harm in our knowing who your comrade is. He ought to be rewarded for his zeal.”

“I had no comrade. I was alone,” said Viola.

“Very well, you were alone; let it be so. Whom did you see in the notary’s house?”

“No one but the Jew; he who is now waiting in the hall.”

“Did you see Tzifra?”

“No. The Jew was alone in the house.”

“But the Jew swears that it was you who committed the robbery!”

“I don’t care. I’ve said what I’ve said.”

“Is there anything else you have to say?”


“Very well. I’ve done with you,” said the attorney, as he rang for the servants.

“Take him away,” said he, as the haiduks made their appearance. Viola turned round and left the room.