The Transylvanian Trilogy
The radiant afternoon sunlight of early September was so brilliant that it still seemed like summer. Two larks were soaring high into the air, pausing a few seconds and then diving to skim the surface of the fields before rising ever higher into the blue sky.
On the ground everything seemed green. Even in the stubble covered fields the gold was veined with moss, shining like green enamel, with, here and there, a few late poppies glowing crimson. On the soft rolling hills of the Maros valley the fruit trees ‘were still covered with leaves, as were the woods crowning each summit. Between the water-meadows, which bordered the river and the orchards, ran the road to Vasarhely, white with the dust which also coated the late-flowering yellow pimpernels, the wild spinach and the spreading leaves of the burdock which grew so profusely on the sloping verges of the road.
Many carriages and peasant carts had travelled that way in the morning, all hastening to the Sunday races at Vasarhely, raising clouds of dust in their wake. Now in the early afternoon all was still. The dust had settled and the road was empty.
A single vehicle approached slowly from the direction of the town. It was an open hired fiacre drawn by three horses. Sitting back in the passenger seat was a young man, Balint Abady, slim and of medium height, his long silk dustcoat fastened up to his chin. When he took off the wide-brimmed felt hat that had become the fashion throughout Europe after the Boer War, the sunlight caught reddish glints in his wavy hair and made his blue eyes seem even lighter in colour. His features had a faintly oriental cast, with a high forehead, wide cheekbones and unexpectedly slanting eyes. Balint had not been at the races. He had come direct from the station and was heading for Var-Siklod, the country place of Count Laczok who was giving a reception after the races, which in turn would be followed in the evening by a dinner and dance.
He had come by train direct from Denestornya even though his mother had offered one of her teams of carriage horses. He had refused the offer, warmly as it had been made, because he sensed she had hoped he would. He knew how much she loved the horses she raised and how she worried over possible hardship for them. In strange stables they would catch cold or be snagged by other horses. So, with a smile, he had told her that it would be too much for them to drive the fifty kilometres from Denestornya to St George’s Meadow beyond Vasarhely, back to the town again and then out to the Laczoks’. They would have to be put to, unharnessed again, fed at an inn … no, he would rather go by train. In that way he would arrive early and maybe have an opportunity to discuss local affairs with the politicians who were sure to be there.
‘All right, my boy, if that is what you prefer - though you know I would give the horses willingly’, his mother had said; but he knew she was glad he had not accepted. So now he was on his way to Siklod, travelling slowly in the old fiacre, with its jingling harness and its ancient springs. He enjoyed the leisurely pace along the lonely road with the dust rising like the lightest of veils carried by an almost imperceptible breeze over meadows where doe-eyed cows lazily looked towards the carriage.
How good it was to be back in his own country after so many years away, to be back home again and to be carried so peacefully and gently to a place he loved and where he would meet so many old friends. It was a long time since he had seen them; since, after his years at the Theresianum in Vienna and afterwards at the University of Kolozsvar, he had had to go back again to Vienna to prepare his diplomatic examinations and, after his military service, he had been posted abroad for two years. Now he was back. How much better this was, he thought, than the diplomatic service where there was no hope of earning money and where the small allowance, which was all his mother could afford, barely covered his living expenses. He did not grudge the meagreness of his allowance. Though her holdings were large - sixteen thousand acres of pine forest on the slopes of Vlegyasza, three thousand at Denestornya, rich farmlands between the Aranyos and the Maros, three-quarters of the great lake at Lelbanya, and smaller holdings here and there - he knew his mother never had any spare money, however hard she tried to save.
It was far better to come home, where he could live cheaply, and where, with his experience and qualifications, he could perhaps make himself useful in his own country.
When, therefore, he was at home on leave in the spring of 1904 and the Prefect of the district had come to Denestornya asking him to stand for the vacant parliamentary seat of Lelbanya, he had accepted without hesitation. He had only one condition; he would be an Independent, free of party ties. Even when abroad he had read in the newspapers of the fierce parliamentary battles in Budapest which had swept away two governments in as many years and, to Balint, the idea of being tied to a party line and obliged to follow a party whip was infinitely distasteful.
The Prefect, somewhat to Balint’s surprise, had raised no objections. He agreed to the Independent label provided that Balint would respect the 1867 Compromise with Vienna, that agreement which ensured the independence of Hungary. What the Prefect did not say was that for him the only important thing was to keep out the opposition and to be sure that Lelbanya should not be represented by some ‘foreigner’ who had bought his seat from the party leaders in Budapest. Although Lelbanya, once a royal town, had declined until it had become a mere country market town with barely three hundred votes, it still had the right to elect a member of Parliament. For some time the elections had been rigged. Aspiring politicians, with money in their pockets, had come from the capital to win the seat. They would be welcomed, and their pockets emptied, by the Prefect and his friends, to an apparently vicious contest with a loud-mouthed demagogue who, spouting the revolutionary principles of 1848, had been employed to contest the seat. On one occasion the rich candidate from Budapest had tired of paying and retired; and, to the province’s shame and embarrassment, the phoney candidate had been elected.
If young Count Abady would stand, the Prefect knew that nothing would go wrong. Since the town’s mine had stopped being worked many years before and the soil of the district only offered a poor living, the inhabitants of Lelbanya had lived chiefly by gathering and working the reeds of the lake, which was Abady property. Against the owner of the lake no ‘foreign’ candidate stood a chance, for if Count Abady decided to sell the reeds elsewhere, the citizens would lose their livelihood.
Of course the Prefect said none of this to the young man. He spoke only in general terms, of the need for a sense of duty, of patriotism and, in Countess Abady’s presence, he spoke, with an air of understanding and sympathy, of how she and her people would benefit from the young count’s presence in his own country. He spoke too, temptingly, of the salaries earned by Members of Parliament which, though low enough, would be useful. He emphasized that there would be no embarrassing contest and that the election would be almost unanimous. Only when Balint and his mother had been convinced did he visit the countess’s agent, Kristof Azbej, and tell him that it would be wise to send a stranger to Lelbanya who would, in a most obvious manner, assess the autumn’s reed crop as if Count Abady were considering selling elsewhere. The electors would get a good fright and when, as in previous years, the crop was still made available to the town Count Abady would be elected. And this is what happened; even though Balint had no idea why the electors cheered him so heartily. Balint’s innocence stemmed not only from his straightforward nature and an upbringing that had shielded him from dishonesty and greed, but also from the fact that the protected years at the Theresianum college, at the university and even in the diplomatic service, had shown him only the gentler aspects of life. He had lived always in a hothouse atmosphere where the realities of human wickedness wore masks; and Balint did not yet have the experience to see the truth that lay behind.
None of this was in Balint’s mind as he travelled slowly towards Siklod in the old hackney carriage. Leaning back in his seat, he thought only of how good it was to be home again and to have the chance to put to good use what he had seen abroad, how he could pass on the benefits of what he had seen in Germany of the new trade unions, of their methods of property administration, of tied cottages and small holders’ rights. Though he had already spoken of such things to the electors, they were still not clearly defined in his mind. In the meantime, the sun was beautiful, the countryside smiling and the sky clear and blue.
A big old-fashioned travelling coach came up behind. A closed carriage with tightly shut windows making a rhythmic jingle of harness drew alongside. It was drawn by two large bay mares, so fat that they were either in foal or had been fed too much hay. On the box was an old coachman wearing a threadbare cherry red coat a fashion of the sixties and on his head was a round hat with an ostrich feather now no more than a tuft. He sat, crooked as a folding knife, nodding his head as if answering the horses’ silent questions. As the coach passed, Balint saw a little maid sitting on the front seat with a basket on her lap and, in the rear, propped up with cushions, a tiny shrivelled-up old lady. He recognized her at once and bowed, but the old lady never saw him. She gazed directly in front of her, squinting under knitted brows into the distance, into the nothingness over her maid’s head, her mouth puckering as if she were whistling.
It was the old Countess Sarmasaghy, in this part of the world Aunt Lizinka to almost everybody. Through her numerous brothers and sisters she really was aunt to two generations of all the families of the district, and the sight of her, silent and alone in her old-fashioned coach, reawakened in Balint the memories of his boyhood in Kolozsvar. Even now he could recall the airless room in which Aunt Lizinka sat in a wing-chair with its back to the tightly closed windows, windows that were never opened for although in perfect health the old lady dreaded catching cold. Between her and the windows were two glass screens as an added protection. She had been huddled into a confused mass of shawls, plaids and scarves, and on her head had been a little lace bonnet under which a small knitted cushion was tied to her forehead. The bonnet was fastened under her chin by a tangle of silken bows. Of her face all that could be seen were her glittering eyes, a sharp eagle-beaked nose and thin colourless lips covered in starshaped wrinkles. He had been terrified of this shrunken witch-like figure who seemed to have no body at all but only a narrow face and beaky nose, just as he had read in the old fairy books. Balint’s mother had pushed him forward. ‘Now, Balint, kiss your aunt’s hand properly!’ and he had kissed the little shrivelled camphor smelling claw as he was told. He had hated it, but worse was to come. The gnarled little hand had grabbed him and pulled him towards the scarves and shawls with a force that nobody would believe, and then the old lips, unexpectedly moist, had planted a wet kiss on his forehead. For some time after being released from this terrifying embrace he could feel the cold saliva drying on his head; but he had been too strictly brought up to be caught wiping it off’.
As the old woman passed in her coach Balint thought that even then she had looked as old as she looked now and he remembered, too, many other things things that she had told him about herself or that he had been told about her by his grandfather, old Count Peter Abady, who was her first cousin.
He smiled to himself as he recalled one of her escapades.
In 1848, during the revolution, Countess Sarmasaghy, born Lizinka Kendy, was a young bride. Her husband Mihaly was a major in Gorgey’s army (everyone was a major then) fighting for Hungary’s independence and she was so much in love with him that, against all tradition, she followed the army everywhere in her carriage. She was at Vilagos when Gorgey surrendered and, ardent patriot that she was, she went immediately up to the Castle of Bohus, burst into the great hall where all the Hungarian and Russian officers were collected, brushed them aside until she faced General Gorgey and yelled at him in her sharp shrill voice ‘Governor! Sir, you are a traitor!’
Nothing had ever daunted her, and she was never afraid to say what she thought. She also had a cruel and merciless tongue. She had loathed Kossuth, and every time that his name was mentioned she would tell the story of him at the National Assembly in Debrecen. The Russians were approaching and no one knew what to do. According to Aunt Lizinka, Kossuth rose to speak and said, ‘There is no need to panic! Mihaly Sarmasaghy is on his way with thirty thousand soldiers!’ And great cheering broke out, even though Mihaly Sarmasaghy, accompanied only by his tiny wife, was actually sitting in the public gallery above. As Aunt Lizinka told the tale she made it seem that everyone knew that her courage alone equalled an untold number of fearless soldiery.
After the revolution, during which her husband had been imprisoned, it was she who handled the appropriations crisis which nearly bankrupted her husband’s family. She took their case to every court, she fought against the enforced leasing of their lands, mines and properties, and she got her husband released from his captivity at Kufstein. First she mastered all the legal intricacies of the new decrees, laws and amendments, the complications of Austro-Hungarian imperial patents, and the commercial methods of running the family mines; then she fought their case from Vasarhely to Vienna, and won.
All this Balint recalled as the old lady’s coach passed his, and this made him think, too, of his grandfather, her cousin, to whom she paid regular visits every year. He could see the two of them now, sitting together on the open veranda of the mansion at Denestornya where his grandfather had lived. Aunt Lizinka, almost submerged in her shawls and scarves, her knees pulled up, curled like a lapdog in a huge cushioned armchair; Grandfather Abady, facing his cousin in a high-backed chair, smoking cigars, as he did all day long, from a carved meerschaum holder. Aunt Lizinka would, as always, be recounting gossip about their friends, neighbours and cousins. All that Balint would understand, and remember, was his grandfather laughing ironically and saying, ‘Lizinka, I don’t believe all these evil stories: even half would be too much!’ And the old lady would declare: ‘It’s true. Every word is true. I know it!’ But the old count just smiled and shook his head, disbelieving, because even if the old countess said things that were mischievous and untrue at least she was funny when she did so.
At Denestornya Count Peter had not lived in the family castle, but in a large eighteenth-century mansion built by his own grandfather at a time when the two main branches of the Abady family had become separated and the family lands divided. The big castle had been inherited by Balint’s mother, together with three-quarters of the family estates, and it had therefore been a great event when she married Peter Abady’s son and thus reunited the family domains of Denestornya and the estates in the Upper Szamos mountains.
Count Peter had handed everything over to his son on his marriage. He kept only the mansion on the other side of the hill from the castle at Denestornya and, when his son Tamas died suddenly when still quite young, he insisted that his daughter-in-law kept the properties together and managed them. Though young Countess Abady wanted the old count to move back to the castle, he always refused; and in this he was wise, as Balint came to understand later, because although she seemed offended by his refusal, with her restless nature the good relations existing between the old count and his daughter-in-law would not have withstood the strain of living under the same roof. As it was, they kept up the old custom established when Tamas was still living: on Wednesdays Count Peter lunched at the castle, on Sundays Balint and his mother went to his grandfather’s house.
As the young Balint grew up, he often went to see Count Peter on other occasions as well. He would escape from his tutors, which was not difficult, and, as the castle park was separated from the mansion’s garden only by two low walls and the Protestant cemetery, he would pretend he was a Red Indian and sneak away silently like ‘Leather-Jerkin’ over the little wall, pretending it was a high and fearsome tower. When he arrived at his grandfather’s, the old man would notice his grubby and dust-covered clothes, but he would never ask him which way he had come or how he had got so dirty. Only if he had torn a hole in his jacket or trousers, and lest trouble should come of it, would he have the damage repaired and send a servant to unlock the park door when the boy went home.
When Balint was small, it was not his grandfather that lured the boy there; it was food. Whenever he arrived he was always given something to eat: fresh rye bread with thick sour cream, cold buffalo milk or a piece of delicious pudding from the larder.
He was always hungry and up at the castle his mother had forbidden him to eat between meals. But when he grew older, it was the old man’s company that he sought. Count Peter talked to his grandson with such kindness and understanding, and listened to the tales of his pranks with a smile on his face. And he never told anyone what he had heard.
If Balint came about midday, and the weather was good, he would find Count Peter on the terrace: if it was cold he would be in the library. Though he was always reading he never seemed to mind being disturbed. Mostly he read scientific books and journals and by subscribing to so many he kept up-to-date with all the cultural movements and scientific discoveries of the times; and he would talk to his grandson about his latest enthusiasms, explaining in simple and easily understood words whatever it was that interested him the most. He seemed equally well-informed on an astonishing range of subjects, from the narratives of exploratory expeditions in Asia and Africa to advances in science and mathematics. Especially when he talked of mathematical problems he would expound them with such lucidity that when, later, Balint came to learn algebra at the Theresianum, it seemed already familiar. And these interests, fostered by his grandfather’s teaching during Balint’s surreptitious visits, remained with him long after childhood.
If he went to his grandfather’s in the morning the old count was usually to be found in his garden, where he allowed no one but himself to touch his roses. He tended them with loving care, grafting, crossing and creating new varieties. They were much more beautiful than those in the castle garden where a legion of professional gardeners were constantly at work.
On Sundays, if the boy came over early for the weekly luncheon, he would find his grandfather on the terrace talking to two or three peasants who, hat in hand, would be telling the old landowner about their problems. At such times Count Peter would indicate with a nod of his head that Balint could stay and listen but that he should sit a little to one side. People also came to ask advice from neighbouring villages or even from the mountains. Romanians or Hungarians, they knew him to be wise and just, and so they would come to him, as to their lord, to settle their problems rather than go to lawyers they could not trust. Count Abady never turned anyone away. He would sit motionless on his hard, high-backed cane chair, with his legs crossed and his trousers riding up to show his old-fashioned soft leather boots. With the familiar meerschaum cigar-holder in his mouth, he would listen in silence to their long explanations. Occasionally, he would ask a question, or intervene with a gentle but authoritative word to calm someone who showed signs of losing his temper with his opponent. This was seldom necessary because in the count’s presence everyone was on their best behaviour. He spoke Hungarian and Romanian equally fluently and his verdict was usually accepted by both parties. “When all was over, whichever way the count’s judgement had gone, they would kiss his hand and go away quietly. They would also go over to Balint and kiss his hand too, as a gesture of respect, and when once Balint tried to prevent this, his grandfather told him in French to let them do it lest they should take offence, thinking he withdrew his hand in disgust.
Other guests would also come to pay their respects: young men to get an introduction or to ask for help in the great world; for though Count Peter seldom moved from home, his influence was known to remain strong and widespread, not only because he was the Protestant church’s chief warden and a member of the House of Lords and Royal Standard Bearer for more than fifty years, but above all, because he was known never to support an unworthy cause. I t was also believed that he had the ear of the emperor and that Franz-Josef always listened to what Count Abady had to say.
Older visitors would come for friendship’s sake former provincial administrators from the years before the upheavals of 1848, when Count Peter had been the Prefect of Also-Feher, and ex-army officers whom he had protected and saved from imprisonment during the repressive regime of Count von Bach, the Austrian imperial minister imposed on Hungary after the 1848 rebellion.
There were two other regular visitors: Aunt Lizinka, who came for two weeks every year; and Mihaly Gal, always called ‘Minya’, a great actor of former days, who would come for three days, no more, no less. The young Balint loved Minya Gal, and when he was there he would climb the park walls several times a day just to sit listening to the conversation of the two old friends, to their jokes and reminiscences, to Gal’s tales of the theatre and his memories of his old mistress, the once famous actress Celestine Déry, and to stories about many other people whose names meant nothing to the listening boy.
The old actor came on foot and left on foot. He would never accept the offer of a carriage, though it was always made. All Balint knew was that he had kept this habit since his early days as an itinerant actor. Perhaps there was also something of a stubborn puritan pride and perhaps, walking the highways, he fancied he was young again. Minya Gal had been at school with Peter Abady in the 1820s and there, at Vasarhely, they had formed a friendship that had lasted over seventy years.
Although it was twelve years since Balint had last seen Minya Gal at his grandfather’s funeral in 1892 he recalled that he had come from this region and had told him he still had a small house at Vasarhely. Balint wondered if he was still alive and reflected that if he were he could not be more than five or six years short of a hundred. Balint decided that when he returned from Siklod, he would try to find out what had happened to the old actor, who had such a large part in his most treasured memories of childhood.
The sharp drumming of hoofbeats interrupted young Balint Abady’s dreams of the past and brought him back to the present. Two open carriages hurried past in quick succession. The first was driven by Count Istvan Kendy, whom everyone called Pityu; in the carriage Balint recognized one of the younger Alvinczys, who had two young women with him. It was only when they had gone ahead that Balint realized that they were the daughters of Count Laczok, Anna and Ida. When he had last seen them they had still been in the schoolroom wearing pigtails. Now they must be grown up and hurrying home from the races for, as daughters of the family, they would have to be ready to greet their guests when they arrived. They had not even glanced in his direction, but then perhaps it had not occurred to them that they would know anyone in a hired cab.
The second chaise was driven by Farkas, the eldest Alvinczy with, beside him, the third Laczok girl, Liszka. As they sped past, Balint saw that the man behind, sitting with the uniformed coachman, was his cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy. He called out and Laszlo waved and called back, but the chaise kept up its headlong pace. Obviously they were racing each other - all the more wildly as there were girls present - both the young men eager to outdo the other, to stay in front and show who was best. They were so engrossed that the race might have been a matter of life or death.
Balint was pleased and surprised to discover that Laszlo would be at Siklod. It would be good to see again his only real friend from childhood, from their days together at school and afterwards, before Laszlo had moved to Budapest for his two years at the university. From that time they had not seen each other often. A few times they had been invited at the same time by Laszlo’s aunts for partridge or pheasant shoots in Hungary and, sometimes, by chance, they had seen each other in Transylvania. But their bonds of friendship, the stronger for reaching back to their adolescence, had never weakened. It was these, rather than their blood relationship, that were close, since Laszlo’s grandmother had been old Peter Abady’s sister, which bound them together. There were other ties too, deep and unconscious, similar traits of character and the fact that they were both orphans; for though Balint still had a mother and a home to return to in the summer holidays, Laszlo had lost both his parents when he was only three. His mother, beautiful and talented, a painter and sculptress, bolted with another man, and shortly afterwards Count Gyeroffy was found dead in his woods, shot by his own gun. It was put out that there had been an accident. The family would accept no other explanation, but this vague and uncertain story had cast a dark cloud over young Laszlo’s childhood. As he no longer had a home he had been taken by his grandmother, but she in turn died after only a few years and, since then, his school holidays would be spent with his aunts. Until he came of age he would have no home of his own and so he was always a guest, sometimes with cousins in Transylvania, but more often in west Hungary, in Budapest, where his older aunt was married to Prince Kollonich and the younger to Count Antal Szent-Gyorgyi.
Balint leant out of the fiacre to look at the rapidly disappearing chaise. Through the billowing clouds of dust he could just make out the figure of Laszlo waving to him. He waved back, but dust from another passing car soon removed him from sight.
Two men sat in a half-covered victoria. On the right was old Sandor Kendy, who had two nicknames in Transylvania. To his face they called him ‘Vajda’, after his notorious ancestor, a wilful and violent-tempered nobleman whose misdeeds and arrogance had finally brought him to the scaffold. Behind his back they called him ‘Crookface’, not out of malice but because whenever he spoke or smiled - which happened seldom - his mouth pulled to one side. An old sabre scar, by no means concealed by a luxuriant moustache, made his expression seem even more ferocious.
Nearly all the Kendys had nicknames, which were needed to distinguish those with the same first name. Apart from Crookface there were two other Sandors: ‘Frantic’, so-named for his restless, changeable character; and ‘Zindi’, called after a now-forgotten bandit whom he was thought to resemble.
Next to Crookface in the open two-wheeler sat Ambrus Kendy, ten years younger who, though only a distant cousin, had a marked resemblance to the older man. So it was with all the Kendys. Prolific as the family was, they could be instantly recognized for the family looks, even in the most distant of cousins, had survived generations of separation from the main branch of the family. They were dark, with light eyes and thick bushy eyebrows. All had aggressive belligerent noses, noses like sharp beaks; eagle beaks like Crookface, falcon beaks like Ambrus; all the birds of prey were represented, from buzzards and peregrines down to shrikes. The proof of the enduring hereditary force was this; the family being so numerous, their estates had become smaller and smaller through division between so many heirs; good marriages had to be made, marriages where the dowry was more important than the bride; but no matter what ugly or feeble women they wed - crooked, lame, fat, thin, bulbous or pug-nosed - the Kendy looks endured and they bred handsome boys and pretty girls all with the same aquiline noses, dark hair and light eyes. People said this strength stemmed from heavy pruning. Through the centuries so many wayward Kendys had perished on the battlefield or the scaffold that those who were left sprouted so much the stronger.
Crookface and Ambrus were alike in more than looks. Both were coarse-spoken, irritable, and contrary, given to reply with a single obscene expletive. This was an innovation started by Crookface in Transylvania, where none of his family, even in boundless fury, to which they were much given, had ever been known to use bad language. But though the coarseness of these two Kendys was the same, it was expressed in different ways. Crookface was sombre and stern and was rude in such a commanding way that few ventured to answer back. Ambrus imitated the rough rudeness of his cousin, but he transformed it to his own advantage. When obscenities fell from his mouth they did so, not aggressively like Crookface, but with a sort of natural jolly roughness, as if he couldn’t help it, as if it were merely uncouth honesty. It was as if he were saying, ‘Of course I am foulmouthed, but I was born that way, coarse and rough maybe, but sincere, straight and true.’ And this impression of honest good-fellowship was heightened by the kindly look in his light-blue eyes, his deep rumbling voice, his heavy stamping tread and the smile that never left his face. Everyone liked this robust, attractive man and many women loved him. When Balint Abady had come to the university of Kolozsvar at the end of the nineties he found that all the students admired ‘Uncle’ Ambrus and made him their model, everyone imitated him, letting it be known that real men all spoke as he did, using foul language with zest, and that only affected weaklings spoke politely. Ambrus was the students’ leader in other ways too. Though married and the father of seven children, he was a great rake and loved drinking and carousing late into the night. He had a strong head, and when he came to Kolozsvar which was often and always for long visits there were revelries every night; with heavy drinking and wild gypsy music. The young students loved it and copied him slavishly.
Balint remembered vividly how he too had followed the fashion, entering into the excesses that always started as soon as Uncle Ambrus appeared. Though it was not really to their taste, he and Laszlo had been swept along by the tide. Perhaps he would not have been tempted if he had been older. Perhaps he would have resisted had he not come straight from the seclusion of boarding school. But as it was he did not resist, and neither did Laszlo. Both felt the need to belong, for, in spite of being related to many of their fellow students, they were treated as outsiders, newcomers, to whom few of the others really took, or confided in, as they did among those with whom they had grown up. Nothing of this reserve, this withholding of comradeship, this intangible dislike, showed upon the surface. There was nothing that Balint or Laszlo could get hold of, nothing for which they could seek an explanation; but it was there nevertheless, in the thousand daily trivialities of casual encounter.
Against Laszlo this antagonism, though it never entirely disappeared, soon subsided when they discovered how well he could play the violin. It was a great advantage to be able to stand in for the band-leader and lead the revels with intoxicating gypsy music. And he could also play the oboe, and clarinet and piano. But the latent hostility to Balint did not change. Maybe it was because he never drank himself under the table, never really let himself go. No matter how much he drank, he always knew what he was doing and what everyone else was doing too. It was as if he could never rid himself of that inner critic, ever alert and ironical, who would watch how he would dance in his shirt-sleeves in front of the gypsies and sing and lark about like the others, and who would say to him, ‘You are a hypocrite, my boy. Why play the fool?’ Still, always hoping that he would get closer to the others, always deluding himself that they would accept him as one of themselves and forget his ‘foreign’ background, he would throw himself into their drinking parties, shout and break things and try to do everything they did. But that inner voice was never silenced. Even so Balint persevered, trying to merge himself with these companions who despised anyone who didn’t get drunk, who didn’t go wild at the sound of gypsy music, who didn’t know the words of every song, and who didn’t have his own tune, at the sound of which one was expected to jump on the table, fall on the floor and break, if not all the furniture, at least a few glasses. Uncle Ambrus did all these things, so everyone else must follow suit; and it was considered a real proof of good fellowship if, towards dawn, one sat crying in the band-leader’s lap or kissed the cellist. Much of this was the natural rivalry of young male animals. They had to surpass each other, to show themselves the better man; and one exploit would lead to another, each more exaggerated than the last.
And the next day they would brag about it. To the young girls in their drawing-rooms they would puff themselves up and say, ‘God, was I drunk last night!’ And the girls, even if they didn’t take these tales too seriously, would act duly impressed. For them it was important to please, and thereby to find a husband; and to be told such stories was not only amusing, but meant that they were sufficiently popular to be given such confidences. If they seemed sympathetic and understanding of such behaviour, and seemed to like the gypsy music, it meant also, at the end of such evenings, that it was under their windows that the young men would bring the musicians to play and sing their messages of love and admiration.
Nor were the mothers any more shocked than their daughters. Most of their husbands had grown up before the revolution of 1848, after which a career in public service, previously expected from young men of noble families, had no longer been open to them. Direct rule from Vienna had removed any opportunity for their traditional occupations and many, in their enforced idleness, took to drink instead. Nevertheless they usually remained good husbands even if a few died of dipsomania, and who could say for sure that the wives were not to blame for failing to keep them off the bottle? Mothers, too, had another and more cogent reason for not looking askance at the young men spending their evenings with the gypsies. Sometimes in Transylvania girls of good family would be invited to the more staid of such evenings, and marriage proposals came more easily when the wine was flowing. And if, as they were more apt to do, the men were getting drunk with the gypsies in all-male groups, they were at least among themselves with no chance of getting entangled with some ‘wicked creature’. So, when the young bloods were known to be out spending their time and their money on drink and gypsy music, the matrons would sigh among themselves and be consoled by the thought that otherwise, ‘God-knows, dear, where they’d go and catch some nasty disease!’
Reminded by the sight of the two Kendys of those student days of five or six years before, Balint recalled that there was at least one girl who did not feel, or pretend to feel, sympathy for the man who was a notorious rake. He had met only one who, when some young man would start to boast of his exploits, would frown, straightening her well-shaped brows, and lift her chin with disapproval and distaste.
Only one: Adrienne Miloth.
What a strange independent girl she had been, different in almost every way from the others. She preferred a waltz to a csardas, she scarcely touched champagne and in her glance there was a sort of grave thoughtfulness, sweet and at the same time intelligent. How could she have married such an ugly and gloomy man as Pal Uzdy? Some women seemed to like such grim looks, but then Adrienne Miloth was not ‘some women’ and, remembering this, Balint felt again the same stab of senseless irritation that he had experienced two years before when he had heard of her betrothal.
Not that this was jealousy; far from it!
He had met Adrienne when she came out in the spring of 1898. He was a senior student then and passionately involved with his first real love affair, with the pretty little Countess Dinora Abonyi. For Balint this was the first adventure that really mattered. He had pursued Dinora for months, and after the sparkling hopes and torturing jealousy of the chase, what a glorious fulfilment! And this was when he had first seen Adrienne, just when all his desires, all his senses, were engaged elsewhere.
He often used to pay visits to the Miloths’ town house, but not looking for love. The subject of love never rose with Adrienne and he never raised it. They did not flirt or even talk about flirting. No matter how long they spent together, nor how long they danced, she never aroused him as a woman. And they met almost daily and often sat talking for hours at a time. In their social group there was no gossip if a young man called regularly at a house where there were marriageable daughters. Indeed, at Kolozsvar there was a great deal of social life and, as in all small towns, most people met every day.
The aristocratic families of Transylvania still spent the winters in their town houses in Kolozsvar, and received their friends every afternoon quite informally. Everyone was expected to drop in, from the old ladies, their grandchildren and mothers with marriageable daughters, to cousins, aunts and friends and all the eligible young men. Invitations were sent out only for luncheons and dinners and it was at tea-time that those who did not make the rounds for some days attracted attention and comment. It did not therefore suggest serious courtship if the same young bachelor came every day and sat with the girls drinking coffee and whipped cream which was then more popular than English tea.
The same groups used to form - three or four girls and five or six young men, brought together by mutual sympathy or family relationship. Together they would drink tea and coffee, play tennis, go to the theatre and organize picnics. In such groups the tie would be friendship and sympathy, above all sympathy, and it was this alone, which existed between Balint and Adrienne Miloth.
Perhaps Adrienne’s strange beauty played its part, but Balint’s awareness was casual not emotional, and he admired her as he would have admired a fine jewel or an exquisite bronze.
Adrienne’s figure was slender and still very girlish, yet her walk, light but in some way determined, reminded him always of a painting of Diana the Huntress he had once seen in the Louvre. She seemed to have the same elongated proportions, the same small head and supple flexible waist that the artist had given the goddess when she reached over her shoulder to take an arrow from its quiver. And when she walked she had the same long stride. Her colouring, too, recalled the Diana of his memory, the clear ivory skin with slight golden tints which never varied from her softly shining face to her neck, and the arms and shoulders that emerged from the silken décolleté of her ball-dress. Only her hair was different, and her eyes, for whereas Diana was blonde and blue-eyed, Adrienne’s hair was dark and wavy and alive and her eyes were onyx, flecked with golden amber.
Not only was Adrienne beautiful, but she was always interesting to talk to. Her ideas were her own, very individual for a young woman of her background. And she had ideas about everything. She was well-read and cultivated, and with her one didn’t have to avoid subjects such as foreign affairs, history or literature as one did with so many young girls who would otherwise take offence thinking one was trying to show off superior knowledge. She spoke several languages and she loved to read, but not the romantic novels which were all that most other girls read. Against these she rebelled, for in the finishing school at Lausanne to which she had been sent she had been introduced to Flaubert, Balzac, Ibsen and Tolstoy, and ever since the trivial had no longer appealed to her.
The first time they had supper together, at Adrienne’s coming-out party, they had talked about books and ideas, and so they did again, each time that Balint would visit the Miloths, which he now started to do regularly. At this time Balint was reading Spencer’s Principles of Sociology and it had made a deep impression on him, especially the first volume which discussed the basic ideas about God and the origins of spiritual belief in primitive man. Carried away by his own enthusiasm he spoke impulsively on these subjects to Adrienne and found himself taken by surprise by the depth of her response and by her thirst for knowledge. This is how they began; but of course they did not stop at one subject but touched on numerous others, words flowing in an ever-guessing, probing search for the truth as is the way with the young. Balint told Adrienne about his grandfather, of his wise appreciation and understanding, of his unerring judgement and how it was only now after so many years that he realized how clearly and cogently the old man had explained life to a twelve-year-old boy. As he talked to Adrienne, ever more fluently and enthusiastically, it seemed to him that he could express himself better and more vividly to this girl who always listened with such intensity and whose answers were always so interesting. It seemed that her presence, with those amber eyes fixed on his, increased his power and his eloquence. They had spent many such hours together, and even when the days grew longer it was often dark before he left. Sometimes a late visitor interrupted them, but usually their talks were brought to an end in a different way. From beyond the double-doors which connected the two drawing-rooms would come the sour voice of Countess Miloth, stern and disapproving: ‘Why are you sitting there in the dark, Addy? You know I don’t like it. Have the lamps lit at once!’, and Adrienne would get up in silence, pausing to get control of herself, forcing herself not to answer back. She would stand for a moment, defiant, her head held high, gazing straight in front of her into the darkness. And then, still silent, she would cross the room with her long strides to the high standard lamp and light it. Before she returned to Balint she would remain there, motionless, gazing into the light with narrowing pupils.
All these memories crowded into Balint’s mind, not in order, not in words or sentences, but in pictures vivid with every detail, time and place rediscovered, recaptured without the need for connected thought or conscious recall, the images of an instant, and as fleeting.
Another carriage passed Balint’s: more acquaintances. As he waved to them the previous vision vanished, like the reflections on the smooth surface of a lake wiped off by the slightest breath of wind over the surface. Other carriages passed, more and more, hastening to Var-Siklod to bring guests after the races and, after each, billows of dust coating the verges and the meadow beyond them. Two large greys, drawing a grand open landau drew alongside. The Prefect sat alone in the rear seat. He called out a friendly greeting to Balint and then his carriage too disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Soon Balint’s old fiacre, moving slowly, was overtaken by all sorts of other vehicles, some driving so fast that he could only occasionally recognize a face or two before they too were swallowed up in the dust. He caught a glimpse of Zoltan Alvinczy alone in a one-horse gig. Then two elegant carriages, in one of which he saw the widowed Countess Gyalakuthy with her daughter, Dodo. An American racing four-wheeler hurtled by with a fearsome rattle of harness and pounding of hoofs and quickly vanished. It was Tihamer Abonyi, driving his finely-matched pair of black Russian trotters. He drove with style and elegance, his elbows out and his hands pressed to his chest, and next to him was his wife, the fascinating Dinora, who turned and waved and smiled back at him with her open, white-toothed, sensual mouth.
The dust had hardly settled when another carriage appeared beside him, a carriage drawn by four heavy strong bays, trotting unhurriedly in steady unison together. Clearly, like all the horses of the plains, they were used to long distances. They were the opposite of Abonyi’s Russians, who would make ten kilometres in as many minutes but then could do no more. These bays could travel a hundred kilometres a day but, though in high spirits, they never altered their even steady trot. Abady loved these old-fashioned Transylvanian carriage horses and gazed at them with the eye of a connoisseur. So intent was he on admiring the team that it was only when the carriage was almost past that he saw who the passengers were. At first Balint only saw a man unknown to him, then beside him with her back to the coachman he recognized Margit, the youngest Miloth girl. In the rear seat there were two ladies. Though he couldn’t see the face of the one on the left he assumed that it must be Judith, because on her right sat Adrienne, her profile turned towards her neighbour. A moment passed before he was sure, because her distinctive flaring hair, her most recognizable characteristic, was concealed in a turban, which in turn was swathed in a voluminous dust-wrap which covered her neck and shoulders in thick coils, and a fine veil caught under the chin. It had to be her, with her fine slightly aquiline nose and chiselled lips. So Adrienne would also be at the ball.
Balint realized that, as a married woman, she had come to escort her younger sisters, replacing their sour-faced mama who had made such heavy weather of Addy’s coming-out. He wondered how old the younger girls were now. When he had last seen them they were still in the schoolroom. Even so they must still be rather young to come out. Perhaps Judith was already seventeen but Margit could hardly be more than sixteen at the most. But then he remembered how closely related they were to the Laczoks Countess Miloth and Countess Laczok were sisters, Kendys from Bozsva and young girls could always attend family parties.
Though Balint realized that he would see Adrienne that evening the thought had little effect on him. It caused neither joy nor that slight irritation he had felt previously when he had thought of her marriage. He felt only indifference and soon his mind was occupied with other things. Other carriages passed, some with single carriage-horses, some with teams of two and occasionally a four-in-hand. One-horse farm wagons started to appear, filled with farmers and their wives, and those who had had a drink at the races would be yodelling and singing in high good humour as they raced each other home. These were the Szeklers, who loved their little grey and bay horses with the same passion as the young aristocrats loved their thoroughbred teams. The Szekler farmers would let no one pass; they drove to the right, to the left, or weaving in the middle of the road so as not to be overtaken, jangling their bridles and shouting encouragements to the horses.
Some middle-class townsfolk, each trim little carriage driven by their single servant, were also on the road. They were the parish clerk, the vicar, the orthodox priest, but however loud they shouted the Szeklers would not give way.
The dust became so thick one could not see five yards ahead.
A single rider, unimpeded by the carriages, rode briskly up. It was Gaspar Kadacsay, known to everyone as Crazy Baron Gazsi. He was still wearing his white racing breeches and brown-cuffed boots. On his head was a soldier’s red field cap and over his shoulders the light blue cape of an officer of the 2nd Hussars. He had ridden four hurdle races that afternoon and now, as if that were not enough, he was riding to Siklod on a fresh young piebald. He galloped in silence, weaving between the trundling one horse farm carts, pulling up when a lumbering wagon appeared out of the dust clouds, spurring on, reining in, zig-zagging through the carts and carriages as if they were obstacles in a slalom race. No sooner had Gazsi disappeared than the sound of cracking whips was hear from behind, whips cracking like gunfire coming ever closer, a tremendous clatter of hoofs, bells and harness coming up like thunder. A high, shrill commanding voice could be heard, ‘God damn it! Out of the way! Make way there!’ The Szeklers, who had paid no attention before, pulled their wagons off the road in great speed, only with seconds to spare before a team of five horses drew level with Balint’s fiacre. First the three leaders, their nostrils flaring, their mouths foaming and their harness covered with ribbons and rosettes, and then the two shaft-horses, all so close to Balint they almost brushed against the old carriage. Behind the rushing team of five dappled greys was a long, low wagon, skidding to and fro as the speed brought the hind wheels off the ground.
In the deep leather driving seat, swinging on its straps like a spring, sat Joska Kendy, proudly erect, his legs spread wide, his body rigid and a pipe between his teeth. In his left hand, tied in a wreath, he held the reins of the five horses tight as cables, while in his right he wielded the fourheaded driving whip, cracking incessantly and rhythmically and making figures of eight in the air.
In front of him the road cleared as if by magic, for everyone knew that delay would be fatal when Joska Kendy had the whip in his hand and cried out for room on the road. With his strong wagon he could tear a wheel off any cart and send everyone into the ditch. It was wiser to let that one go by! And so they gave way, letting the racing team of five vanish swiftly into the distance.
At last, through the dust, Balint began to make out the long avenue of Lombardy poplars which led to the Laczoks’ place. The old fiacre turned in on to the straight pebble-paved drive and the clatter of wagons which had become so deafening during the last half hour, began to die away behind him, leaving only the slight tinkling of the harness bells and the soft hiss of the wheels on the ground.