CHAPTER II

My father had now in his turn taken over-in accordance with family custom-another agricultural property which was handed over to him by his father. He and my mother were probably tired of living with the old people, with the brothers and sisters and the rest of the family in Tarna-Örs. Anyway, I vaguely remember a journey by carriage and then the ferry across the River Theisz, carriage, horses, and all. The Theisz is one of the four great rivers of Hungary and Tisza-Abád is close by. The house is still there to this day, but I don't remember it very well, we only lived there three years and I never saw it again after we left it. The tragedy of that memorable 22nd of July was so appalling that I don't wonder my parents turned their back on it and never wished to see it again.

The whole of that terrible tragedy was simply a question of machinery versus the labourers: the same motive, the same pig-headedness on the one side and misunderstanding on the other, that brought about the many troubles all over the industrial world at that time. In this case it was the world of agricultural science and the peasants. My father was very keen on farming. In the intervals of certain diplomatic missions entrusted to him by the Austro-Hungarian Government he had studied farming in Germany and in France. Tisza-Abád was situated in the heart of one of the finest corn-growing districts in Europe, and here agricultural science was not only in its infancy, it had in fact never been born.

Such things as machinery for harvesting, threshing, or grinding had never been heard of. Everything was done by hand and everybody, owner as well as peasant, was perfectly satisfied with things as they were. My father, unfortunately for him, had progressive ideals; he dreamed of turning Tisza-Abád into a model farm on the lines of those he had seen in Germany and France. I take it he was also obstinate; that he did not listen to warnings, either from friends, or from those of the peasantry who were better educated than most and had remained loyal to him.

Anyway, he began operations by building a steam-mill, and importing agricultural machinery from Germany. The peasants grumbled, held indignation meetings in the village inn, sent deputations to my father demanding that this work of the devil should cease; for, they argued, if the corn was not going to be cut and garnered and threshed and ground by their hands, who but the devil had the power to do it-surely not God, who if He had wanted iron and steel things to do this work He would have created them without the help of goodness knows what hellish objects from Germany, and without that tall chimney which obviously was only destined to send the smoke from the fires of hell up into the pure air of the sky.

They talked, humbly and respectfully at first as to their overlord, then more and more firmly and peremptorily. My father listened to them, with entire sympathy and understanding. He argued with them, explained the matter to them as clearly and as patiently as he could: assured them that never, while he lived-and his children after him-would any man born and living on his estate suffer penury from unemployment. He talked and the men listened, but they were not convinced. Superstition-which is one of the besetting sins of the ignorant-had them in its grip. They were frightened, they knew not of what.

Anyway, another deputation composed of all the elders of the village went to interview the parish priest on the all-engrossing subject. They went to beg him to say a special mass for the keeping away of the devil and to bless buckets full of holy water wherewith to douse the entire building with its tall chimney, which only the devil could make use of by filling it with smoke.

It was just the same old story that agitated the industrial centres all over Europe. England was one of the chief sufferers and so was Northern France. I was just a child, and of all that happened previous to that fateful 22nd of July I knew, of course, nothing until I was old enough to understand. But I do know what happened on the day itself.

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It began most gloriously. The weather was perfect. The corn was ripe. Harvesting was about to begin, that over-busy, over-happy time for all those who love their country and their land as my father did so whole-heartedly, and we two little girls were just old enough to enjoy the festivities attendant on the birthday festivities as great and lively at Tisza-Abád as they had been at Tarna-Örs. This particular year they were going to be merrier than they had ever been before.

A grand project had been set on foot by my mother, who had a perfect genius for making everybody, young and old, masters and servants happy. The idea was to have a great masquerade. Everyone was to dress up in some fantastic guise: the women were to don male attire, and the men to wear bodices and petticoats. For this purpose old chests were ransacked for clothes and apparel which had lain mouldering therein for the past century probably. I imagine that a good many of these were moth-eaten. Well! what did that matter so long as they could be worn at all and helped to increase the fun? I know that for weeks before the event a regular army of women from the village sat in a huge workroom plying needle and thread and scissors to mend and fix up all sorts of costumes, sufficiently at any rate to make them wearable on that one wonderful occasion.

The tsiganes came, as was customary, in the afternoon, of the 21st. They were a band of super tsiganes attached to Tisza-Abád, who had for the past three years been trained and taught and encouraged in the way they should go by my father, who was, besides his other great qualities, an accomplished musician. After they had settled down to play, friends began to arrive. They came as they always did-in their carriages drawn by spanking Hungarian horses: light carriages these were, that skim over the sandy roads of the puszia-really not unlike the 'victorias' of our mothers' days in Hyde Park, but always with four horses in the traces (sometimes five, Hungarian fashion three leaders, two wheelers), the harness either black or red with long streamers and silver bosses. So gay, so romantic, so mediæval. No wonder that full-throated cheers followed them whenever they galloped through a village. No wonder that Tisza-Abád echoed those cheers from one end of the village to the other.

The events of the next twenty-four hours form something of a jumble in my mind. All that I can disentangle from that jumble of impressions in first the feeling that the day was all too short, I wanted it to go on and on and on, and at the same time I wanted the hour to come quickly when all the guests would retire in order to don the fantastic costumes which had been laid out ready for them in their respective rooms. A second impression of which I remember being conscious at the time was the joy that my own birthday was not very far off, 23rd September in fact, and that all this loveliness, the games, the presents, the mad merry-making would in two months' time begin again.

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And so the evening came. Silence reigned in the château while the guests were busy dressing up-comparative silence that is, because now and again it was broken by shrieks of laughter issuing from one of the guest rooms and by one or other of the uncles or cousins or friends breaking out into stentorian song. We two little girls were dressed in old-fashioned pages' costumes of scarlet satin, with small scarlet skull caps to confine our rebellious curls, satin knee-breeches and buckled shoes. We were delighted with ourselves. They had been made to our measure by Julie Dubois-how well I remember her name when I have forgotten so many others-our French nursery governess.

I can distinctly recall even now some of the motley throng that gathered in the reception rooms before supper was announced: the girls and young matrons in men's clothes which, for the most part became them very well, for they knew how to make the best of themselves, and the men in what articles of feminine attire they had contrived to array themselves in.

My mother-always beautiful, always elegant and sedate-wore my father's national court dress: a blue watered-silk frock coat with jewelled clasps, black velvet cloak with scarlet lining, sable collar and jewelled buttons over her left shoulder, grey silk, Hungarian breeches, great curved sword with jeweled hilt, belt, and sheath. She looked perfectly lovely-she was, indeed, a noted beauty, even in this land where so many women are beautiful-with a cap set rakishly on her dark hair, its long heron's feather held with a jewelled clasp. There surely never has been a more fascinating Hungarian aristocrat dressed ready for a Court function in Budapest or Vienna. They reason why I am able to describe the costume she wore that evening all those years ago is because I have a portrait of my father painted by a Hungarian artist and wearing that self-same Court dress.

Others, of course, I don't remember so accurately, only one or two ludicrous visions float before my mind now and then even to this day. The very noble and very pompous Count V.-Lord-Lieutenant of the county-who had dragged out of the welter of all sorts and kinds of feminine apparel some white tarlatan skirts such as were worn by Taglioni and her pupils in the days when ballet-dancing was a fine art (and, if you please, by the Russian ballet-dancers of to-day now that this art has come into its own again). On Count V.'s none too slender figure the pink bodice-laced up at the back, and his socks and own dancing shoes peeping out below the tarlatan skirts, looked supremely comic.

And I also remember an Orczy cousin of mine, a handsome young captain of hussars dressed as a Hungarian peasant maiden, with row upon row of coloured beads, such as these maidens love to wear, adorning his manly chest, and a párta (the national head-dress) which refused to keep in its proper place. He had managed to collect a number of cotton skirts and tied them on round his waist one over the other in the orthodox style, but he had not the art of swinging these as he walked, which the Hungarian peasant girls do to perfection in order to display their kaleidoscope of colours.

My father and two or three of the older men were the only ones who wore no fancy costume on that never-to-be-forgotten occasion, but everybody else did, and the servants the same: they, too, had been pressed into following the topsy-turvy rule of the evening, and anything more funny than old Jankó, the grey-haired butler, in a scarlet bodice and pink petticoat, solemnly pouring out the wine, or standing behind my mother's chair without the suspicion of a smile beneath his huge white moustache could not very well be imagined.

The supper was boisterous and merry, and the tsiganes had to work hard to make themselves heard above the din in the great open hall, the clatter of dishes, the outbursts of laughter, and the constant chattering of the gay company. We two little girls and all the children had the time of our lives, and the very thought of getting sleepy and having to go to bed was anathema to our childish souls. After supper, dancing began as was customary with the csàrdàs, the Hungarian national dance, some of the finest tunes of which have been immortalized by Brahms (though it was not he who invented them).

The tsiganes knew how to alternate the dreamy lassú (slow movement) with the maddest, liveliest parts of the dance. "Húzd rá, czigány!" (play on tsiganes) was called out to them by the dancers as if to add more strength to their arms. Sometimes they could hardly play for laughing when the 'ladies' became entangled in their unaccustomed petticoats, and were compelled to cling none to gracefully to their dainty cavaliers.

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In the midst of all this boisterous gaiety only a few could have noticed that the old butler had slipped into the room and, going up to my father, whispered something in his ear, nor seen my father rise immediately and follow Jankó out of the room. Now, funnily enough, I do remember that little incident because, beginning to feel tired I had ceased dancing and had drawn close to where my father was sitting, and had squatted on the floor with my head resting against his knee. His rising so suddenly sent the sleepiness out of my eyes. And after that I only remember things in a confused dream-like manner. I remember that Madeleine and I and the other children were picked up and taken incontinently up to bed; we two were undressed and made ready to say our evening prayer as we always did, kneeling by the side of mother; but this evening was different.

Everything was done in a hurry, and mother did not come for prayers, as she always did whether there was 'company' or not, and Julie Dubois murmured our usual little prayers at such a rate that we were scarcely able to follow. (Funny that such trivial incidents as this one should dwell so persistently in my mind, but it certainly has done throughout my long life.) Hastily she tucked us up in bed, told us to go to sleep and forgot to put a match to the veilleuse, the night-light which was always kept going in our nursery. Julie slept in the room next to ours and the communicating door was always left wide open To-night our nursery was darker than usual because there was no veilleuse, only a narrow shaft of light from the lamp in Julie's room came through the open door and lay over the floor leaving the rest of the room in darkness. But we were not afraid of the dark. I am not sure that I for one did not like it.

To-night, however, we neither of us got to sleep. We called once or twice to Julie but she did not answer. As a rule this part of the house was always very quiet. The nursery was a long way from the reception rooms, on another floor but to-night there seemed to be a perpetual hum going on from every part of the house. Nothing definite, no individual sound, just a perpetual buzzing like the approach of lots and lots of horses and carriages coming nearer and nearer and yet not like that either. Just noise. At first we thought-at least I did-that it came from the dancing on the floor below, the tsigane music and so on.

I longed for Julie to answer when we called. After a time I noticed that a red glow shone through the slats of the shutters, because my bed was opposite the window and I could see the red streaks through the slats. I called to Madeleine and she got out of bed; then I got out, too, and together we went and stood by the window looking at the red glow through the shutters.

"It can't be the sunset can it?" I suggested; and Madeleine shook her head and whispered: "Sh . . . sh . . . sh . . . listen."

I listened. I heard Julie's voice at last. She was murmuring "Mon Dieu!" and again "Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!" at frequent intervals. Ilona, our nursery-maid, was with her, talking. Julie did not speak Hungarian but she had been a long time with us, so she understood when the servants spoke to her. And Ilona was saying now: "It is all burning, burning, all the fields, the corn, the maize, the oats, everything"; and Julie murmured: "Mon Dieu, ayez pitié de nous!" Then Ilona went on talking, she said: "The stables you know, Mademoiselle, the cowsheds, the farm buildings, all that, they are trying to save the poor animals, who are so frightened, the poor cows, the horses, the pigs, the geese. . . . Oh! it is dreadful! . . . Those wicked peasants . . . they should have thought of the innocent animals . . ."

And Julie kept on murmuring: "Mon Dieu, ayez pitié!"

That is about all that I actually remember of that terrible night. I was only three years old at the time and of course I did not understand. It was only years afterwards, and then only very gradually, that papa and mama revealed to us the terrible tragedy in all its details. I gave a full description of it such as I gathered it from them in my book, A Son of the People. In the book all the characters are imaginary; it is only the actual tragedy such as it occurred at Tisza-Abád that I tried to describe, not as I imagined it, for it was all too real, but as I saw it in my mind's eye.

I understand that the steam-mill, with its tall chimney-the cause of all the trouble-still stands on the banks of the Theiss, and is in full working order. It was reconstructed after the fire which destroyed acres upon acres of rich corn land, but failed to do the building irreparable damage. But many a time, and even to this day, have I seen in imagination the awesome scene which marked the close of our life in Tisza-Abád.


©Blakeney Manor, 2001