CHAPTER IV

Throughout these troublous times, Franz Liszt-'the Abbé Liszt' as he then was-remained the staunch friend and supporter of my father. He had a great and genuine admiration for his musical gifts. There was never any humbug about old Liszt, and when he declared that Félix Orczy was the finest amateur musician in Europe he meant what he said, and was the first to proclaim that through my father was not what was known as a brilliant executant, he 'made the piano sing' in a way that he for one had never heard equalled.

I think the grand old man tried his best to persuade my father to accept the brilliant offer made to him at this time by the Khedive to take over the direction of the Opera in Cairo, and help make of that city as great a musical centre as Budapest had become under his directorate. The offer must have been very tempting, and funnily enough I vaguely remember Madeleine and I poring over our geography books when we heard the word 'Cairo' spoken by our parents as a likely future abode. But my dear mother was dead against the project. We two little girls were growing up and our education was becoming one of the first considerations in her mind.

Be that as it may, my father's definite refusal with grateful thanks to His Highness the Khedive was yet another link in the chain which bound little Emmuska Orczy to her future home-England.

After Budapest-and always with a view to our future-my parents took us to Brussels where we commenced our education in the convent school of The Visitation. We were only a very little while in Brussels. My beloved sister died there at the age of twelve. My father idolized her and her death did, in a way, break his heart. He had suffered greatly through the tragedy in Tisza-Abád, and the three years of struggle against covert enmity in Budapest, but nothing in the way of misfortune struck so deeply at his heart than the death of dear little Madeleine. I was just old enough, too, to realize my own loss to the full. Though I was younger by two years than she was, we had always loved each other devotedly.

The one year of schooling that we did together in Brussels was made happy for me by the fact that the kind nuns allowed us to be always together both for work and play. My school reports in those days always spoke of me as being trop dominante avec ses compagnes. I suppose I was of a domineering disposition. I always wanted to be, and in my own opinion always was right in any dispute or argument that occurred amongst us schoolgirls. In fact my character did not develop on very lovable lines, I am sure, and it needed all of Madeleine's gentle influence, and often her interposition between my ill-temper and the wrath of the other girls, to patch up many a quarrel which would have brought severe punishment on my obstinate and passionate head.

I was therefore, and entirely by my own fault, decidedly unpopular: but everyone loved Madeleine. I adored her; but even the kind nuns who most deplored my mauvais caractère, admitted that I never tried to dominate her. She was getting more and more delicate at this time and did not care to join in the games in the big convent garden, and I was only too happy to stay with her in the recreation room, content to be with her and to chatter away on all sorts of fantastic subjects. We invented a kind of game together, a thrilling drama which we enacted, of a lovely princess held in bondage by a wicked ogre and of a daring prince who made various attempts to rescue her. Madeleine was, of course the princess whose name was Rose, and I was the Prince Horace (sic).

The tower in which the lovely lady was imprisoned was built of school forms and desks flanked by numerous chairs. These obstacles had to be surmounted by the dauntless prince without knocking any of them over, for if he brought down as much as a chair out of place he had failed in his attempt and oft-times had been grievously wounded and lay unconscious for at least three minutes (that is to say, three weeks by our computation). As soon as he had recovered from his swoon he made another daring attempt, scaling crags and chasms of rocks and storming the grim citadel of benches, forms and desks. And ha! The joy of the rescued princess! The pride of the dauntless prince as he clasped the loved one in his arms.

And this same thrilling drama was enacted whenever the kind nuns allowed us to drag the desks and chairs about for our mise-en-scène. Probably they knew what I, of course, did not, that my dear Madeleine had not many more weeks to live and indulged her in the little entertainment which I had invented for her pleasure.

I only mention this trivial episode because I cannot help thinking that in a childish, obscure way my imagination was already then at work on doughty deeds of valour, on noble heroes, dare-devil adventurers and on hapless victims of cruel persecutions which found expression many years later in the creation of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

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While we were in the Visitation we spent two of our long holidays in Tarna-Örs. I must say that I did not like them at all. Somehow I felt that we were not popular with the rest of the family. My grandfather was a martyr to gout and we saw little of him; all the others, aunts, uncles, cousins had become very Germanized. Grandmother was Viennese by birth; her only daughter had married an Austrian General; the cousins jabbered away in German, and my darling Madeleine and I hated talking German. The one uncle whom we liked was Master of the Horse to the Empress Elisabeth and lived in Vienna; two other uncles were in the army where German was obligatory.

Grandmother never allowed Hungarian to be spoken in her presence, and we two little girls took refuge against all this Germanization by chattering away in French with Mama and between ourselves, and always Hungarian with papa when we were alone with him. Grandmother it seems disapproved of our foreign education as she called it. She thought us too free in our ways, not sufficiently lady-like-I was, of course, the chief offender. We were very frightened of her, and as we were invariably reproved at table when we chatted in French, mostly in whispers, we got into the way of sitting silent during the long meals. But it was worse when the meal was over and the 'grown-ups' adjourned to another room for coffee. Oh! how I dreaded the half-hour that ensued. We were the youngest of the family and had our two little chairs by the side of grandmother and were told, very kindly I must say, to sit down.

Then came the awful moment. All the ladies-aunts and cousins and friends who were staying in the house brought out their crochet or their embroidery frames. I brought out my tatting-I have always loved tatting-and Madeleine her knitting. The grown-ups drank their after-dinner coffee, talked a little, and presently silence fell on the assembled company presumably because no one had anything particular to say. And suddenly grandmother would fix her steely eyes upon me and command: "Emma" (she disdained to call me Emmuska, which is the Hungarian equivalent of that very ugly name and actually means 'little Emma'), "Emma, faits la conversation" (make conversation), and this command she always issued in French-I never knew why-because she detested French almost as much as did Hungarian. But I ask you whether an order to make conversation would not always be the surest means of drying up the flood of your eloquence and muddle up your thoughts however active they may have been just before.

I am quite sure that it dried me up and jumbled my thoughts, for in my shy, stupid way, I simply couldn't think of anything to say, and you can, I am sure, picture to yourself the feelings of a schoolgirl or even of anyone older faced with such a command. I know that it positively froze me and the effort that I made to entertain the company (who, by the way, were none too kindly disposed towards me) sufficiently to raise a smile or a glimmer of interest must be counted as one of the most heroic achievements of my life.

I wish I could remember some of the rubbish I talked on those occasions: but I do know that in consequence of these efforts I was never able in after life, nor can I to this day 'make conversation' or indulge in what is known as small talk, an art in which so many of my friends young and old excel, unless I am among friends who are interested in me and who will keep the ball of 'conversation' rolling along happily.

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It was soon after the second long holiday which we spent in Hungary that my beloved sister died. This was the first sorrow that came into my young life. How little did I guess that her death was yet another link in the chain of my life, the link that brought me more insistently than any other to what God had decreed would be my real, my spiritual, birthplace . . . England.

My father who worshipped her, and who was absent in Hungary at the time at the death-bed of his father, was entirely broken by grief at this additional sorrow. He had been telegraphed for when Madeleine was dying and arrived in Brussels just in time to see her laid to rest there. He became a changed man after that. Though he was not much more than forty at the time his hair turned snow-white, and he became the most silent man I have ever met. Not morose, just silent with a kind of gentle, brooding sadness in his deep-set blue eyes.

Indeed, sorrow had become the portion of both my parents at this time. My mother lost both her father and her mother and also a sister of whom she was very fond, and I imagine that both she and my father felt that this overwhelming atmosphere of sorrow was none too healthy for a growing girl as I then was. They were obliged to go to Hungary on business of succession and so forth, and an aunt who had a daughter of her own about my age and who was very fond of me undertook to look after me while my parents were away. She was an aunt à la mode de Bretagne-not really an aunt, but distantly related in the way that in Hungary all families are in some way or other linked together.

Anyway, I fully reciprocated her affection for me. She took me along with her daughter to Paris to give us the educational polish which I daresay was necessary, because the dear little nuns of the Visitation in Brussels were more noted for their piety than for the erudition. Our minds were principally fed on ecclesiastical history, not imparted to us out of printed books but out of copy-books, manuscripts in fact which were copied and re-copied by all of us pupils by way of recreation every Saturday afternoon. We were also grounded in the history of France out of books entirely devoted to the glory of that Catholic country.

In addition to these two histories (sic) we had the usual lessons in geography and arithmetic, and several hours during each week were devoted to sewing and (for which I am heartily grateful) to what was called style épistolaire, i.e. writing letters to imaginary correspondents on various matters suggested by the teacher, such as a description of an afternoon's holiday at Ostende (I suppose most children at school in Brussels had been to Ostende) or an account of how we spent our recreation hour when the weather was too bad for play in the garden. Anyway, in the Visitation the subject of these letters was limited to our childish intelligence. Nevertheless, I feel that it was good training in its way, more especially as there were always extra marks for good handwriting and for quickness in the task, all of which certainly stood me in good stead in later life.

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At the Convent School in Paris our studies were certainly on a higher plane than in Brussels, but not much. We learned our Histoire de l'Eglise and our Histoire de France out of printed books. I am ashamed to say that I do not remember the names of the authors, but I enjoyed my Histoire de France even though it was not Michelet's. I think I liked hearing about the wickednesses of England, especially with reference to Jeanne d'Arc, of whom it was always boldly asserted that she was condemned at the stake by the English whilst no reference was made to the French bishops who also sat in judgement over her. (Strangely enough this great fallacy still dwells in the minds of the great majority of French people, and not only in that of the uneducated.) I also enjoyed the abuse hurled at our Henry VIII. His name was anathema both in Histoire Eclésiastique and in the Histoire de France.

Here, too, we had the usual lessons in geography and arithmetic, and to these kind nuns am I also indebted for their teaching of style épistolaire, the writing of letters to imaginary correspondents, but now these letters were no longer very simple, they were by way of being adapted to our developing intelligence.

All the same I have often felt that the effort and the discipline of attempting to write those letters have stood me in the very good stead. I have always treasured a letter from my dear friend, W. J. Locke, that charming stylist. I had asked him to do something which he didn't want to do-give a lecture or something of the sort-he was never fond of publicity. I apparently wrote again and finally he consented, beginning his letter with: "You cunning writer of persuasive epistles." I certainly have more often than not got what I wanted by writing a 'persuasive epistle' than by lengthy interviews. And this I owe, I am sure, to those lessons in style épistolaire taught me by the artless and naïve teachers in the Convents of Brussels and Paris.

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I was eight years old when my sister died, and just on fifteen when my parents took the great and, for me, most momentous steps on which, unknown then by me, the whole course of my life depended: the decision to settle down in London for a time. As a matter of fact I am rather vague as to why, or exactly when, they made that decision. The intervening years of my girlhood were, as far as I was concerned, uneventful, and there were no indications whatever in my mind during that time of any tendency towards imaginative or in fact any special kind of talent. Nor do I remember much of the journey to England, except that my first experience of a sea-voyage was a very unpleasant one.

Of course the first thing to do when one arrives in a foreign country is to learn its language. Both my parents spoke English after a fashion, enough at any rate to make themselves understood by shop people or servants. But I knew not a word. After consultation with the Austro-Hungarian Consul in London-who was an old friend-it was decided that I should first be sent to a small day school where I could pick up the first rudiments of the language. There was one close to where we were living which was kept by a German professor and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Pretorius, and thither did I tramp with a maid in attendance, backwards and forwards four times a day for six moths. At the end of that time I had a good working knowledge of English-good enough anyhow to pass First Class the College of Preceptors examination with special prize for foreign languages.

All that part of my life is very uninteresting, and I am not tempted to talk about it. But there are one or two incidents connected with that small day school kept by a German professor and his wife on which I have often looked back with amusement. The day's work always began with the singing, in chorus, of German songs, some sentimental, others patriotic. Frau Pretorius was at the piano and we sang: Die Wacht am Rhein and Andreas Hofer and Heil dir im Siegez Kranz and so on. Now, why? The school was, according to the prospectus, 'for daughters of gentlemen only', and I was the only foreigner among some twenty or thirty English young ladies. I suppose that these English young ladies told their parents about the singing in chorus of German patriotic songs, and that the parents did not mind their joining in this. But I imagine that the German professor and his wife knew what they were about when they made us sing Die Wacht am Rhein as far back as 1887. Was it already propaganda? I wonder? A foretaste of Dr. Goebbels? Quiet, insidious propaganda? Perhaps. We certainly never sang "God Save the Queen". And we had lectures on German history from the days of Barbarossa to the glorious victories of 1870-71 in the way that in Brussels and Paris we had lectures on French history. I wonder if there are any foreign schools on the continent where there are lectures on English history.

One other amusing incident in connection with that funny little school was that there was a kindergarten attached to it. Little children ranging in age from four to six attended there. Among these were two dear little dark-haired Jewish boys. They were Henry and Landon Russel, and at the yearly school concert these two would play four-handed pieces on the piano. I remember them in their brown velvet suits, red stockings and laced-up boots, so earnest, so sure of themselves, and so very, very good at the piano. Both these little boys were well-known in later life in the musical world, more especially the younger one Landon, who became the famous composer and conductor of the Albert Hall Orchestra, Sir Landon Ronald.


©Blakeney Manor, 2001