It was about this time that we finally decided to settle down in the country. We were both of us country lovers at heart; neither of us cared for social life, and we had had enough and to spare of town life, its bustle and noise. What we wanted was peace and quietude. What we hoped for was the opportunity of buying some small property not too far from town but with a nice garden where we could indulge our passionate love of flowers and trees and birds and the broad expanse of heaven above us. But of course that was not an undertaking that could be gone into in a hurry, and in the meanwhile we rented a nice old dower house near Minster, in Thanet. Thanet is not a beautiful part of England. It is flat; there are no hills, few trees, only big fields and wide spaces with the tang and smell of the sea all around. We spent three very happy years there.
My reputation was now on a solid foundation. I could write just whatever I wanted to. I could let my imagination and my love of romance have free play. Whatever I wrote was eagerly sought for publication and welcomed by an ever widening circle of readers. Bless 'em for their goodness and loyalty to me. It was in Thanet that I wrote The Nest of the Sparrowhawk, the scene of which was laid in our neighbouring village of Acol. That book in one of the few romances of mine with an English background. I have often been asked why that was so. English history is every bit as colourful, and picturesque, and as romantic as that of any other country, and I loved it and studied it with all the ardour which my love for my spiritual home had engendered in my heart. So I was always a little bit at a loss how to reply to that question.
The real reason was the difficulty of dealing with names of places and persons. I have never disguised these in my romances, as fiction-writers almost invariably do. In writing of Paris and Boulogne, of Clichy or Anjou they were always Paris or Boulogne, and so on in my books The streets of Paris and Nantes bear the same names to-day as they do in Eldorado or in Lord Tony's Wife. I have old maps of all the towns which, to my ears, still echo the footsteps of the Scarlet Pimpernel and his devoted followers. There is not a country lane the configuration of which I have in any way distorted. To me, had I changed the names or the positions of any actual place I would, I feel sure, have lost something of their reality and been unable to infuse that reality into my narrative.
Now with English places you would have to be almost superhumanly careful. Place but an oak tree twenty yards further than it is standing to-day and you would bring the wrath of a score of local readers on your head. Speak of some tiny footbridge over a rivulet one hundred and fifty years ago and of a certainty you would be told more in sorrow than in anger and with the addition of documentary evidence that that footbridge had only been in its present place one hundred and ten years ago. I remember speaking to W. J. Locke about that and venturing to upbraid him for disguising the names of places in his books as if he wanted to mislead his readers, and his answer was very much what I have been trying to explain. "You must do it," he said, "especially when you have got any part of England as a background, because at the slightest error in topography, however insignificant it might be, you would simply get a deluge of correspondence upbraiding you for your misdemeanour; correspondence too, to some of which self-preservation or merely courtesy would compel you to reply, and the life of the worker is too short to be wasted in that way." "What about French topography?" I suggested. "That is not so important," he said; "you can do pretty much as you like provided you make no glaring errors; but the French reader is not nearly so inclined to be captious as your English one. I don't know about other countries. And anyway," he went on in his charming, modest way, "our great master, Thomas Hardy, set us the example didn't he, with his Wessex and his Casterbridge?"
But our time in Thanet didn't necessarily mean all work and no play. We spent some lovely days in Transylvania--the home of my mother's family--an altogether different part of Hungary than Tarna-Örs, and the Lowlands; they had their origin there. Transylvania is the Eastern part of Hungary; it was then an integral part of that Kingdom and the family owned extensive properties over there. Transylvania, before the 1914-1918 war and the disastrous Treaty of Trianon was politically and racially very much on a par with Ireland, that is to say, the owners of the land--as well as the professional and middle classes--were Hungarian. The peasantry, more numerous but entirely uneducated, was Szlovak, i.e. Roumanian. The Treaty of Trianon, which transferred the whole of Transylvania to Roumania, dispossessed those landowners who refused to swear allegiance to its King, and Transylvania itself has ever since been tossed battledore and shuttlecock, from Roumania to Hungary and back again, in accordance with the political views first of Clémenceau and then of Hitler.
But before the 1914 war it was a fine country, entirely agricultural, surrounded by the high range of the Carpathians, the forests of which are the haunts of bears and wild boar and herds of wolves, and on the higher peaks of which the adventurous sportsman can oft descry the timorous chamois, a graceful silhouette against the intense blue of the sky. We always took our boy, Jack, with us on our yearly visits to Czege, my maternal uncle's place; and for him the outdoor, somewhat wild, life was just Paradise, although he was not yet in his teens and had only known the sophisticated life of towns. But my uncle often took him out with him when he was after chamoix or small game; hare, snipe; and wild partridge abounded, and there was wild duck on the lake three miles long which was close to the château.
The local gunsmith made a small gun for Jack and he quickly learned to handle it in a childish fashion. He never hit anything, but this did not worry him. He had had his fun. When I asked him if he had brought any wild duck down he replied quite happily: "No; but they flew away, and they were so frightened when I shot at them."
My uncle and aunt, Countess Wass, and all the cousins simply adored 'the English family'. They thought my English husband the handsomest man they had ever seen, the free and easy intercourse between us and Jack appealed to their hearts. At first they wondered a little at what they thought must be a want of respect of the boy towards his parents, but presently they realized that it is through friendship between father and son that the fine characters of Englishmen are allowed to develop early in life.
Czege, my uncle's place, was more primitive than Tarna-Örs or Tisza-Abád, but we loved it all the better. My uncle drove us round to call on the nearest neighbours, the nearest one to Czege was distant over twenty miles, and motor-cars had not yet penetrated to the mountain fastness of Transylvania. There were a few taxis in Kolozsvár (the capital town now called Chy) where my old aunts pulled down their blinds so as not to see those inventions of the devil stationed outside the mediæval cathedral, and there was a rich cousin somewhere close by who owned the one and only modern car in the land and was the terror of the entire population of Transylvania. We drove about in the light carriages that were specially suited to the soft sandy roads, and to the dear little Arab horses who galloped away with them, sometimes in teams of four or in teams of six, as if they had only a load of feathers behind them.
Among many other activities my uncle was a great breeder of horses. As he naïvely used to say to us: "You know, my dears, a wretched landed proprietor in this wild country has very little coin of the realm to bless himself with. The sale of my horses is my great mainstay whenever I am short of money--which I very often am." We got him to tell us just how the business of buying and selling was carried on, and how he had made a start with the fine stud which had become one of the most important ones in Eastern Hungary.
"The Hungarian and the Egyptian Governments," he told us, "are two of my best customers, and I also sell to the Serbian and Bulgarian armies. The breed of our horses in Eastern Hungary is splendid for military purposes, as the beasts have boundless endurance and though they are small they are very strong and hardy. I know," he went on to say, "that at the time of your South African War our horses came into disrepute, when a lot of dishonest middlemen came here to purchase horses for the British Government. These men were hopelessly dishonest. They were Polish Jews for the most part, and they lined their pockets by buying all sorts of worthless horses and palming them off on the unsuspecting British remount officers who sat smoking cigarettes in the Hôtel Hungaria and were entirely in the hands of those Jews as they did not know a word of Hungarian."
And then one day we had a most thrilling experience. The Hungarian Government was sending two remount officers to Czege to select and purchase a certain number of horses.
"You are going to see some fun," my uncle said to us that morning. And we did.
To begin with in the early morning the stud which we used to see grazing on the hillside far away had been driven into a field below, close to the château. After lunch we all wend down into the field. There were some five hundred horses there then.
The chief herdsman was there with my uncle, stud book in hand, to select and check off the beasts. We, who had never seen anything of the sort before, were just enthralled. Firstly the pick of the herd was checked off, those that were not for sale to the Government but would be kept for the owner's own use or for sale to his friends.
How different to the staid, solemn business of a horse fair in England.
As a matter of fact the Hungarian csikós the herdsmen are a race apart. Their knowledge and handling of these wild creatures surpasses anything the Wild West has ever shown us, and they wield the lasso as skilfully as the most expert American or Argentine cowboy.
All I know is that at the end of the day all was peace and quiet once more. The remount officers had been and made their purchases. The horses which they had chosen had been branded with the Government stamp and number, and this with the young untamed animals was neither an easy nor a pleasant process, nor was the work of the troopers who had to lead the horses afterwards some eighteen miles to the nearest railway station for entrainment. The horses that were too young or too small, the valuable brood mares and the very promising two- and three-year-olds, were allowed to return to their free life unhampered on the hillside far away.
While Jack was still at his prep. school in Stanmore Park we once spent two autumn months, October and November, in Czege. My uncle was 'a great hunter before the Lord' and we were keen on seeing some of the great trophies that fell every year to his gun and those of his friends. The most interesting trophy to me that year was the magnificent skin of a huge brown bear which my uncle shot in the forest of the Carpathians, a skin which adorned the hall of Snowfield for some years and is now spread on the floor in the dining-room of my little villa in Monte Carlo--sic transit gloria . . . He must have been a magnificent fellow, standing in life not far short of ten feet on his huge pads. Count Wass shot him in the dense forest at ten paces. "It was either the bear or me," he used to say with a laugh; "for he came at me quite unawares from nowhere seemingly, and with outstretched arms; but he made a good target of himself and I was the lucky one."
The bear in the Carpathian Mountains is the grizzly or Russian bear, and as powerful as he is fierce if attacked. This one's skin had been promised me by my uncle if he happened to bring him down. A close relation of his adorned the Paris Exhibition (Hungarian section) 1900. He, to, had fallen to my uncle's gun. He had not been skinned but stuffed, and stood upright, fully ten feet high from his pads to the crown of his splendid head. He was black, except for a white waistcoat and collar. A rich Armenian bought him for the adornment of his house in Alexandria.
The forests of the Carpathians are also the abode of a large breed of wild boar, and of course the haunt of wolves. The year we were there in the late autumn, winter had set in very early and was very severe. The mountains were already deep in snow, and the wolves were hungry and extremely unpleasant, because at night they came down in herds to the foot of the mountains, close to the château, and there set up a howling fit to wake the dead. A weird sound at night. I didn't like it. Of course battues were organized and wolves were rounded up and encircled as an enemy army would be in wartime. Most of the peasants were armed with guns and were a valuable addition to the gentlemen who joined in the razzia in a sporting spirit. A number of the ravenous beasts were invariably shot and the rest would get away and lope back up the mountainside, and I imagine that they were a prolific lot for it seemed to me that the nightly howlings after a few days' respite when calm appeared to have descended on the forest restarted as unpleasant and as loud as before.
We did some delightful journeyings from Czege into Roumania, Moldavia, and over the Carpathians into Bukovina. No motor-cars--just that perfect means of getting about, four or six sturdy little horses and the light carriages which skimmed over the excellent mountain roads and over mountain passes which no motor (at any rate those of thirty years ago) could have tackled, except to the great inconvenience of travellers and constant wear and tear of tyres and mechanism. We spent a very happy month in Tusnád, a watering place with hot sulphur springs which was close to Brassó, the last Hungarian town on the Western number of visitors during the summer season, rich Roumanian and Bulgarian Jews and other merchants.
Granting that everything in the way of hotel accommodation was primitive, it was always spotlessly clean and the cooking super-excellent. The hotel we stayed at was right in the middle of the forest, and one had all one's meals out-of-doors under the trees with the scent of pine, of cedar and of rich earth in one's lungs, and the air as invigorating a tonic as the most modern vitamines could possibly devise: in fact, so invigorating was it that I--who was never a great walker and certainly never much of a mountain climber--was able to go up to the 'Anna Tô', a lake two thousand feet up, as blue as the Mediterranean on a sunny day.
We also went over to Sinaia, on the Eastern side of the Carpathians, the summer residence of the King of Roumania, as beautiful a spot as any sovereign could wish for, in which to rest from politics and forget the turbulence of his people. Here we had the pleasure of meeting the Queen of Romania, known to the literary world as Carmen Sylva, and had the honour of being introduced to her. She was a Princess of Wied, rather plain with a red face and heavy German features, but she was very gracious, speaking to us in English (fluent with a German accent).
I had never been an admirer of her Thoughts of a Queen for the 'thoughts' had not seemed to me either original or exalted. Probably she had no opinion of my works either, though she admitted being 'conversant with them'. So we threw bouquets at one another, she very condescendingly to me, and I with the respect due to her rank and her attainments, which must have been considerable seeing that she was honorary Doctor of something or other of the University of Budapest.
Not very far from Sinaia, but still on the Hungarian side of the mountains was Dorna Watra, a watering-place with some kind of curative springs. It seemed to us both as the exclusive abode of Jews. There are a great many Jews in every part of Hungary, but never had I seen so many people of the old faith congregated in one town. We struck it in mid-September, the day of their great festival. There they were, young and old, men, women and children; the men and the boys in long kaftans down to their heels, round fur bonnets on their heads, and all of them with the characteristic curl down each cheek in front of the ear. Though they came from various parts of Hungary and of Roumania, they were of the race of Polish Jews.
I cannot bear to think now of that crowd as I saw it that day, knowing what unspeakable misery, what hideous mental and bodily torture those brutish Nazis have inflicted since upon those same people whom we shouldered on that peaceful day in September so many years ago. Of course as a race they had their faults--and they were grievous faults. No nation is more aware of these than the Hungarian, where the peasantry has groaned from centuries under their exactions and their rapacity, but it was not for the barbarous and sadistic Nazis to retaliate with murder and butchery.