Links in the Chain of Life

Book I ­ Childhood

CHAPTER I

How often have I been asked by readers-young and old-"do tell me how the Scarlet Pimpernel came to be written. How did you think of him?" And a good many would add (men for the most part): "You are Hungarian born, aren't you? Nothing English about you?" To the first the answer was, "Yes! of Hungarian parents and grand-parents and countless generations of Hungarians"; and to the second: "No, nothing; except my love which is all English." "Then," my kind interlocutor would add, "how comes it that you, a pure-blooded Hungarian as you say, have such a wonderful understanding of the British character and have created such a perfect representation of an English gentleman?" Which tribute to my Scarlet Pimpernel always pleases me more than any other, however appreciative. For that was what I aimed at when I first conceived him: a perfect presentation of an English gentleman.

At fifteen years of age, when first my parents settled down in London (temporarily as they thought) I had never been in England, never had an English friend or English governess, or English tuition of any sort or kind. I did not speak one word of English. Then how did it all come about? Neo-Victorians and Neo-Georgians will put it down to destiny; others to predestination. I, in my humble way, put it down to the Will of God. And looking back on my long life and its many changes I can trace the links of my chain of life that began on the great plains of Hungary, continued through the heart of London, and find me now at this hour of writing this book in Monte Carlo jotting down all that I can remember of those links which led me one by one to the conception of my first literary work. If any one of those links had not been, if any turn of event in my life had been different, I would probably have ended my days in the country of my birth and known nothing of the happiness which comes from love, from the affection of friends (such as one meets in England) and from success in the work to which I devoted so many years of my life.

In Gotha's Freiherrliches Taschenbuch-the continental counterpart of our Debrett-the ancestry of the Orczy family is traced back to the entry of Arpád and his knights into Hungary nearly two hundred years before the Norman Conquest.

Ah well! such is destiny: such was the Will of God! If this had not happened . . . or that . . . if my father had not been half-ruined by the agrarian troubles of the '70's and the great Viennese financial crisis that followed . . . if he and my mother had not then decided to go to Brussels for a time while my sister and I were still babies, then to Paris when I grew to school age, and finally to London to complete my education after the death of my sister . . . if he had lived a few years longer, when he intended to return to his own country and to end his days in the old home . . . if I had had any talent for the musical career to which in his heart he had already devoted me . . . if . . . if . . . if . . . well, if all those things had not happened The Scarlet Pimpernel would not have been written.

Links in the chain of life.

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When I was a child in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, poor, misguided Hungary of to-day was living her last years of prosperity as an independent proud country, equal partner with one of the great empires of Europe. I am not going to enter into any dissertation on the history of Hungary. It would, for one thing, take too long and not be very interesting to those who have never known the country in its brilliant declining years. But it was brilliant then, when there were no wars or rumours of war, none at any rate that reached the ears of those splendid feudal lords ensconced in their opulent châteaux, mediæval still in their magnificence, their hospitality; their contemptuous disregard of every innovation that threatened the even tenor of their lives-new-fangled rubbish, or inventions of the devil did they dub that abominable railway which cut through their estate, their forests, their fields; bolshevism they would have called it had the word been coined then, or communism which was the catchword of politicians and had no meaning that any sensible man could discern.

I had two dear old aunts who lived an almost conventual life together in Kolozsvár, the capital of Transylvania, integral eastern portion of Hungary which has become the battledore and shuttlecock between herself and Roumania ever since the ill-considered treaty of Trianon in 1919. Their beautiful old home was opposite the cathedral, and on the open place in front of the great mediæval edifice the first motor-cars made their appearance in the first year of the twentieth century, and there halted and were parked. My dear old aunts thereafter pulled down the blinds and closed the shutters of the windows which gave on the Place, for they would not at any price of light or air look on those inventions diaboliques.

Already the railway-which twenty-five years before had linked Kolozsvár with Budapest-had been looked upon by the two nice old ladies as an invention of the devil. On the vary rare occasions when they journeyed to Budapest they did so as they had done in their youth-in their carriage drawn by six horses with postilions and relays. It took five days and five halts in often primitive, and always uncomfortable inns to accomplish the journey; eighteen hours (at first) to do it by rail, but no matter. There was no pandering to the devil and his works even at the cost of almost unbearable fatigue as old age slowly overtook these devotees of old-time customs.

But this is by the way. I only quote the fact in order to give a picture of the state of mind that prevailed among the upper classes in Hungary at the time I opened my baby eyes to the world.

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My earliest recollections go back to a marvellous day in mid-July-my sister Madeleine's fifth birthday. She was the elder of us two girls and her birthday was always an occasion for one of those days of merrymaking and boundless hospitality peculiar to country life in Hungary. My father and mother lived in Tarna-Örs then, a large agricultural property on the River Tarna-owned and farmed by my grandfather as it had been by many generations before him-and there were we two girls born.

The house was of the type so often found on the puszta (the plains of Hungary) two stories above the ground, rambling, square and huge, with four façades at right angles to one another. The main block contained the reception rooms and the apartments of the numerous family, together with numberless corridors, halls, and staircases; another had thirty-six guest rooms, and a loggia where one sat on hot summer afternoons looking out over the garden and the park, and beyond these to the village with its little mediæval church and tower; another consisted of the riding school, gymnasium and swimming bath, whilst kitchens, offices and servant's quarters completed the square. The whole structure was as commodious and as ugly as you like.

In the centre of the square there was a garden planted with standard rose trees and clipped acacias, in the middle of which a fat stone Cupid spouted water out of its pursed mouth. I remember that Cupid so well, he and a life-size stone image of Attila, King of the Huns (why Attila I have often wondered since) standing defiant and warlike in a niche on the main staircase, are the two items of ornamentation that have dwelt persistently in my memory.

Tarna-Örs was not the family seat, and there had been no house there until my grandfather built one in the early days of the nineteenth century. He was a younger son, had served in the army until he was chosen to accompany the Austrian archduchess, Marie-Louise, as her chamberlain when she went to France to marry the Emperor Napoleon. On his return he bethought himself of getting married, and desirous of having a home of his own-his elder brother being installed in the ancestral château-he took over the property of Tarna-Örs and built thereon this huge, ugly house, not only in order to accommodate the large family which he fondly hoped for, but also to indulge his taste for that extravagant and large-hearted hospitality for which the Hungarian landowners will always remain famous even in these days of poverty and democratic government.

And oh! that hospitality! Relations, friends, all of them were welcome, with their families, their servants, their horses and carriages. There was room for all and to spare. There was no question of invitations, they just came-knowing the days when they would be welcomed with feasting and dancing and tsigane (gipsy) music all day and half through the night.

The 22nd of July was one of those days: there were several others throughout the year, but this one was the most important, not only because my sister was the eldest grandchild but also because the weather at this time of year was always beautiful, the heat always intense, so that there was every excuse for doing nothing all day but sip iced drinks and loll on easy chairs in the loggia. We two little girls were prinked out in our best frocks and did not enjoy ourselves half as much as when we had on our old pinafores and could scramble up the old acacia trees without fear of a scolding for spoiling our frocks. Indeed we did not really look forward to the 22nd of July in spite of the fact that every carriage-load of visitors brought toys and bonbons for the birthday child.

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Visitors began to drop in the day before, but the first to arrive were the tsiganes with their musical instruments. They came from the neighbouring town of Gyöngyös, as the village band was not considered good enough for the great occasion, and usually turned up at about five o'clock ready to begin to play as soon as some of the company had gathered in the loggia (we called it the verandah) and had sat down to iced coffee, hot rolls and lovely butter, and finishing off with huge slices of water-melon cooled in ice-yellow, pink, red, and white glistening like coloured snow encased in their shiny emerald-green carcases-with early peaches and nectarines and pomegranates swimming in maraschino.

And the gipsy band played unceasingly one gay csàrdàs (the Hungarian national dance) after another, intermingled with one or other of those beautiful old Hungarian songs which great musicians like Liszt, Brahms, and Hubay did not disdain to pass off as their own compositions.

What happened during the remainder of that first afternoon we children knew nothing about. We were whisked off to bed at our usual time and, looking back on those merry days in the light of further experience, I imagine that all the grown-ups as well as the children spent a quiet night in the comfortable beds of Tarna-Örs in preparation for the next day's orgy of pleasure. Nor do I remember much of the actual great day. It seemed to have been spent for the most part in the dining-room, the verandah, or the garden in eating and perpetual chattering to the accompaniment of tsigane music until the end of the day, when dancing began and went on until far into the morning when all of us children were getting out of bed.

I don't think that anyone did anything during the day except chatter and eat. They didn't drink much-drinking to excess is not a Hungarian vice-they just ate and ate and laughed and chatted. Breakfast was at any convenient hour, coffee and hot rolls and butter served in the bedrooms. At eleven o'clock everyone drank Tokay and munched biscuits until one o'clock, when luncheon was served and went on until three o'clock. Coffee and liqueurs took up the time until five o'clock, when it was the turn of ices, cakes, fruit, and I know not what. And always to the accompaniment of gipsy music. When those tsiganes slept I know not. They certainly played with hardly any interruption, only two or three very small intervals for meals, and with never-failing energy for hours on end.

That is all the recollection I have of my sister's fourth birthday. As far as I know it was no different from many other days of equal conviviality. It was in the following year that the festivities of the 22nd of July were brought to a close by an appalling tragedy which has never faded from my mind from that day to this.

Was it not the first link in the chain of my life? I leave my readers to judge.


©Blakeney Manor, 2001