CHAPTER VI

But I must not forget that there was also a lighter side to our musical life in London: the social life there was, for Hungarians, extremely pleasant. Count Aloysius Karolyi was Austro-Hungarian Ambassador. He and his beautiful wife entertained lavishly in their splendid house in Belgrave Square. They were both entirely Hungarian by birth and tradition and great friends of my parents. Their eldest daughter, Nandine, was of my own age and a very charming friend to me. She subsequently married Count Berchtold, who was Austro-Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs at the outbreak of the 1914-1918 war and had unaccountably made himself scarce at that critical moment.

Count Karolyi's predecessor had been old Count Beust, as fanatically Austrian as Count Karolyi was Hungarian. Count Beust had been one of the Members of the Congress held in Vienna in 1815 to decide the fate of Europe after the final downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Prince and Princess of Wales often graced Countess Karolyi's receptions with their presence. My father and mother were always invited to these splendid gatherings and before the death of my father, when once I was 'out' and had been presented to our own Empress Elisabeth, I was also invited.

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Often now through the mist of years I see floating before my mind faces that were familiar there. Beautiful faces, interesting faces. There was such an array of beauties in those days, such beauties as have never graced London drawing-rooms since. It is difficult to recall them all; they were quite dazzling: The duchess of Leinster, the Countess of Warwick, two of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, Mrs. Cornwallis West, the Marchioness of Bath and her beautiful daughter, afterwards Countess Cromer, and so many others.

An interesting personality was Maria, Marchioness of Ailesbury, familiarly called 'Lady Aye', very thin and always very décolletée. Count Bylandt, Netherlands Minister, and his Russian wife--who were great friends of my parents--were both very fond of music and gave many musical-at-homes in their beautiful house in Grosvenor Gardens.

I stood quietly in the shadow of my beautiful mother for the most part, gazing with awe and wonder at this brilliant assembly of the flower of European aristocracy and diplomatic circles. Frankly I did not enjoy the pageants. Sometimes I was even bored.

I suffered from what would now be called inferiority complex. To myself I appeared as such an insignificant, mediocre personage among so many clever and brilliant people with whom (to my thinking) nobody could possibly dare to enter into conversation. I was not pretty or dashing. I was dull, I was shy, and I didn't feel that anyone who was clever and interesting would take the trouble to entertain me or make themselves agreeable to me. As a matter of fact the origin of the whole trouble--for it was real trouble sometimes--went back to those awful afternoons in Tarna-Örs when under the command of my autocratic grandmother and in the company of a lot of German cousins, all sitting silent, disapproving, and plying their crochet-hooks, I had been ordered to 'make conversation'.

And so I remained shy and dull through the whole of my girlhood. I certainly, as a girl, was not a social success. My dear father did his best to chaff me out of that frame of mind; and my mother, so beautiful and very much admired, took me out with her as often as she could so as to get me accustomed to Society and to going about among friends of my own age and education, but I never got over my dislike of crowded and showy functions.

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The only big function I really enjoyed (though why I did more than another I cannot say: was when the Archduke Rudolf of Austro-Hungary, only son and heir of the Emperor Francis Joseph, paid a visit to Queen Victoria. The Hungarian colony in London took the opportunity of organizing a grand reception in his honour at which he graciously signified his intention to be present. This was the era when Hungarian Gipsy music was all the rage in every capital of Europe, and the finest of the gipsy bands headed by Berkes was 'doing' a season in London that year. So they were engaged as a matter of course to play at this reception and I--poor, shy, little atom--had the honour of dancing the national csàrdàs with His Imperial and Royal Highness.

As a matter of fact I am quite certain in my own mind that 'shyness' is only a manifestation of self-consciousness. We would never suffer from it, any of us, if we did not think of ourselves and of the impression which we are making on others.

Certain it is that when on that unforgettable occasion I was the cynosure of all eyes I did not feel the least bit shy. The Archduke danced the csàrdàs as no other non-Hungarian has ever danced it to my knowledge, and that in the mazes of the quick movement, twirling and twisting with his hands on my waist and mine on his shoulder and in the languorous steps of the lassú I was conscious of nothing except the pleasure of the music and of the dancing. And my exalted partner was so handsome, so gracious, and so simple that when he conducted me back to my mother's side he kissed my hand and thanked me for the pleasure I had given him.

As a matter of fact the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the throne of the Hapsburgs, was never partial to Hungary and the Hungarians, and in moments of conflict between them and the Slav elements of the empire, his sympathies invariably inclined towards the latter. It was during the following year that the terrible tragedy of Mayerling occurred which has remained, and always will remain, one of the mysteries of history. Quantities of paper and pints of ink have been wasted on so-called authentic elucidations of the mystery that surrounded the death of the young Archduke and Marie Vetsera. Not one of these elucidations is the true one.

A guard of honour composed of six members of the highest Austro-Hungarian aristocracy stood sentry around the bier whereon reposed the mortal remains of the heir to the great Empire. These six were relieved every twelve hours by six others of equal rank, and the duties of these twelve gentlemen were carried on during the whole of the slow progress from Mayerling to Vienna until the heir to the throne was laid to his final rest in the vault of the Capuchin Friars in that city. They alone hold the key to the mystery: they and the Duke Philip of Coburg Koháry, who was at Mayerling at the time of the tragedy, husband of Princess Louise of Belgium, whose sister, Stephanie, was the wife of the Archduke Rudolf.

Many of those who formed the guard of honour are dead now: they were middle-aged men at the time. One of them was a first cousin of my father's and came to London with his son to see us. He often talked to my father about the appalling tragedy, and declared that he had embodied it in all its details in memoirs which were not to be published until fifty years after his death. He died in 1907! . . .

Marie Vetsera I knew in the way that everybody knew everybody else in Budapest those days, but never well. She was older than I was for one thing, and her ways and speech were not approved of by the mamas of we younger ones. She was beautiful in a quasi-oriental way: dark hair, large dark eyes, full red lips (one didn't use lipsticks yet), and an oval face. In these days of fashionable emaciation her figure would have been called coarse. She certainly had a prominent bust which was very much admired then (flat-chested girls stuffed cotton-wool pads inside their corsets).

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The tragedy of Mayerling was a shattering blow to the old Emperor Francis Joseph and the beautiful Empress Elisabeth. Lovely as she was, she had been unhappy in Austria from the first. Her Imperial husband was possessed of a huge heart which embraced many ladies who, though they could not rival the Empress in beauty, more than overshadowed her somewhat limited intelligence by their amusing conversation and vivacious small talk. She certainly was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, but there was always a look of sadness in her lovely eyes. The great joy of her life was the hunting season in Ireland. As long as her health and her age allowed it she went every year. My father's brother, who was her Master of the Horse, often accompanied her. There are many in England and Ireland to this day who, I am sure, remember her as one of the finest horsewomen and a keen follower of hounds whom they knew in their hunting days.

She used to stay at Claridge's in London on her way to Ireland. My cousin, Countess Marie Festetics, was her dame d'honneur, and I had the honour of being presented to the Empress who said some very charming things to me about England and the English, and also about the Hungarians who loved her and whom--unlike her husband and her son--she understood and admired. She was one of the very few non-Hungarians who spoke that very difficult language perfectly and this endeared her specially to her Hungarian entourage. Her end, and the hand of an assassin, was as tragic as that of her son.

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But to return to what I have called the lighter side of our musical life in London.

Certainly the lightest and merriest of all was the 'Hungarian Band', the gipsy music which at the end of the nineteenth century had literally taken London by storm. Since then the term 'Hungarian Band' has been falsely used and vulgarized. Any band of fiddlers who chose to call themselves Hungarian and arrayed themselves in gaudy attire was dubbed Hungarian band and obtained engagements to play in restaurants, tea-shops, and night-clubs. But the fiddlers were not always Hungarian and certainly never true gipsies. Many a time did my father speak to their leader and discovered that they were German or some sort of Slav, but not Hungarian. But when Berkes and his true gipsies first visited the capitals of Europe they were a revelation of something unusual, exotic, something wild and yet soothing. They were an inspiration and an incentive.

Berkes, as soon as he arrived in London, came to pay his respects to my parents, and thereafter he and his men often came to play for us of an evening, and if any Hungarian friends were visiting London at the time they would come and spend the evening with us and listen to the tsiganes in an atmosphere that was more in keeping with their music than the fashionable 'at homes' or restaurants. What amused us very much was the social success of these fellows. In Hungary the gipsies have no position whatever, not even with the peasants in the villages, let alone with the middle and upper classes. They were just czigány and their status was not unlike that of the coloured races in the estimation of Americans. But in the European capitals they were put on an equality with all the other artistes who delighted the world with their music. They were received as guests in the highest society, invited to dinner, fêted, and acclaimed as Sarasate or Joachim or opera singers were acclaimed.

In London, Berkes on his first visit was the lion of the season. And he was not a little proud of his social success. It was an exceptionally brilliant season. More than one European monarch and hereditary prince happened to be on a visit to Queen Victoria: and I remember Berkes, puffed up with pride, giving to my parents a glowing account of a dinner-party at a ducal house at which he and his band had been guests. "And," he declared with more imagination than veracity, "there we sat, one king, one gipsy, one king, one gipsy, two queens two gipsies next to another all round the table."

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Not for worlds would I wish to say a single word of depreciation on the subject of true gipsy musicians. Much has been written about the origin of their music. It has even been ascribed to the ancient Egyptians, and at one time dear old Liszt made himself very unpopular in his native land by declaring that there was no such thing as Hungarian music. It was neither more nor less than gipsy (i.e. Romany) music. Certain it is that music is inborn in the gipsy and it is well known that when a small Romany child is born and begins to toddle the father stands before him holding in his right hand a fiddle and in his left a piece of money. The child puts out its little arms in the direction of one side or the other. If to the right he will be a musician; if to the left he will be a thief. The Hungarian peasant will tell you with a shrug that in all probability he will be both. I am, of course, speaing of Hungarian gipsies whom I knew in their own native land. I have never known anything about other Romanies in England or elsewhere in Europe.

It must be remembered that a gipsy musician is entirely untutored. He is never taught to play. He plays his violin, clarinet, and the czimbalom (his national instrument) entirely by ear. The syncopated rhythm comes naturally to his fingers. Their leader will be taught some new tune composed, perhaps, by a cultivated musician who will hum it to him; after a few bars the leader will take up the tune and play it, then turn to his band and they will all fall in with as perfect an orchestration as could possibly be devised. Berkes, Rigó, and Rácz were the three finest gipsy leaders of exceptionally admirable bands. But Berkes was always the most popular in London--as he was in Budapest. His tone on the violin, whether he played languorous songs or exciting dance music, was exquisitely pure.

There were several enthusiastic musicians--ladies, for the most part--who offered him large sums of money for his violin, which they believed was a Gubernatis or a Stradivarious at their best so perfect was its tone, and Berkes without a moment's hesitation would assent to the bargain, hand over the violin and receive the money. And the same incident would occur again a few days afterwards when he was playing on another violin bought surreptitiously at Hill's.

London remained faithful to Berkes for two or three years. I, for one, lost sight of him and his fashionable career after the death of my dear father in 1892. Neither Rácz nor Rigó came to London. The former was a great favourite in Paris, and the latter in Brussels--where a very great lady fell madly in love with him. He was exceptionally handsome in a gipsy way and so inflamed the passion of the lady that when he had completed his engagements and returned to his home in Hungary she ran away with him.

This story sounds sordid enough; but one cannot help thinking, with a shudder, of the awful disappointment which awaited this high-born lady when she realized the sordidness of the surroundings into which her insane passion had thrown her. The vulgar crowd with whom she was forced to associate, the brutality and iron hand of the old woman who was the mother of her chosen lord, the countless humiliations to which she was subjected must have been unspeakable torture to the poor woman's soul and mind. I don't know what happened to the poor thing in the end, but I do believe that she was able to get away after a time and to return to her home in Belguim.

 

©Blakeney Manor, 2001