It required quite a strategical combination to transport me from the town of Vilagós to where the world is boarded up.
This place was selected for me by my wife while she was already in Pest, whence on the approach of the catastrophe she set out from home on a peasant’s car to seek me up and down the kingdom. For a time she travelled with the wife of Alexander Körösy, who set her on my track. At the storming of Szegedin we were all within an ace of being blown into the air by the explosion of a powder magazine.
It was a little village called Tordona, deep in the beech forests of Borsod, the name of which was not even to be found on the chart of Francis Karacs.59 Here the celebrated comedian and scene-painter of the National Theatre, Telepi, had built a house with the intention of seeking an asylum there with his family in troublous times. When the Russians came, he sent thither his wife and his son Charles, who was then a young artist student. Telepi gave my wife this sage piece of advice. “When the bottom of the world falls out, take your husband where nobody will find him.” Tordona had taken no part in the Revolution. . . . The journey was quite an Odyssey. In a small covered peasant’s car a lady conveys water-melons to market; the coachman and the footman sit in front together. The footman is myself, the coachman János Rákóczy, who only the day before was Kossuth’s secretary. The price of water-melons was a silver tizes60 a-piece. Our heads were not worth so much as that. The way from Vilagós to Bekes–Gyula is long, and the whole way we were going straight towards the advancing Russian host. Cossacks, lancers, infantry, artillery, gun-carriages, met us at every step, and yet nobody asked us the price of those melons or the price of those heads. It was only the two splendid horses in front of our car which might have raised suspicions that we were not itinerant market-gardeners, although Rákóczy wore the genuine blue livery of a coachman. When we got into the domain of swamp and rushes, a mounted betyár61 took us under his protection, and guarded us along paths where a carriage had never yet gone, where our horses repeatedly waded up to their breasts in water, till we fought our way through into the endless plain. He would take nothing from us but a “God bless you!”
59 The first Hungarian engraver (1769–1838). His celebrated map of Hungary was first published in 1813.]
60 The tenth of a florin.]
61 A peasant drover.]
Our dear friend János Rákóczy, as an old country gentleman, was a capital coachman so long as he had only to guide the horses, but that part of the stableman’s science which deals with harnessing and unharnessing he had never learnt. So when we came to a place in the sweltering heat of the dog-days after a long drive through the vast plain, the very first thing he did was to let the unharnessed horses immediately drink their fill at the spring, and then tie them up in the stable, in consequence of which the shaft horse caught inflammation of the lungs, and expired an hour afterwards. The saddle horse survived as by a miracle. Instead of the deceased horse, therefore, we had to harness another nag, which we picked up on the road for 100 florins. This new horse was a hand and a half smaller than the steed that still remained with us. With this slap-dash team nobody would have taken us any longer for gentry.
We had still to pass through Miskolcz, where the Russians were encamping. Here dwelt my wife’s father, the wise and worthy professor Benke Laborfalvy. He pointed out to us the road which led into Tordona. Five hours long we penetrated through dense forests: not a human dwelling place, not a beaten tract was to be seen. A stream cut through the winding valley and along its bank, shifting now to the right hand and now to the left, a sort of path wound its way naturally, without anything like a bridge; for the convenience of foot passengers, huge stones at irregular intervals had been cast into the bed of the racing stream. There, in a deeply hidden, delightful valley, lay the little spot which is walled off from the world.
My wife and I descended at the Telepi’s house and were heartily welcomed by our worthy hostess. Rákóczy, with his equipage, had to be lodged in another house. Madame Telepi’s brother, my tenderly remembered good friend, the worthy Béni Csányi, dwelt in a house a little farther off. It was he who stabled the horses. Later on I joined him.
He was really a model of a “small country gentleman,” such as they ought to be nowadays. An accomplished, intelligent man, speaking, besides his own language, Latin and German, with a thorough knowledge of the law, for which he had been trained, and who, for all that, now went out and ploughed his own land with the aid of a man-servant. He ate his home-made bread, drank his home-brewed wine, welcomed guests with all his heart, and slew a sheep or a pig in their honour. His wife baked and brewed, led the way at the spindle, and sewed her children’s clothes with her own hand. They had three sons, and the little money that flowed into the domestic coffers was spent in the schooling of the children. Csányi never borrows, and owes no man anything. His work-room is a joiner and wheelwright’s shed; when anything breaks in the wagon he mends it himself: it is his pet pastime. He has a library also, full of such books as Sir Walter Scott’s historical work on the French Revolutionary Wars. Newspapers he never reads. If, again, a poem pleases him, he learns it by heart, and passes it on further by word of mouth. He never goes to law with his neighbour, and when two fall out he makes peace between them. But when the cry goes forth, “The fatherland is in danger! Let us make sacrifices for the commonweal!” then he cuts the large silver buttons off his mantle, and lays them on the altar of his country.
I owe it for the most part to this worthy man that I did not lose my reason altogether in these hard times.
Thus we arrived hither. I was saved. I was no longer a dead man. I lived.
But what sort of a life was it? It was the sort of life which belongs to a new-born babe: absolute inability to help one’s self. Rákóczy quitted us on the following day. He was off to the Carpathians. There he took service as coachman (naturally under an assumed name) in the family of a wealthy territorial Count. They were more than contented with him, for he was an excellent and honest coachman. But one day a strange misadventure befell him. He was taking the Count and his brother-in-law out for a drive, when the gentleman began talking of the era of Louis XIV., and one of them could not call to mind the name of a celebrated statesman of those days. Then the coachman could not help turning round towards them, and saying, “Colbert!” The Counts immediately dismounted from the coach and went home on foot. The learned coachman, however, was discharged. It is not good to sleep under the same roof with a coachman who knows so much.
My wife and I agreed that she should return to Pest and resume her engagement at the National Theatre there till I should get back my patrimony. Then we would purchase a little property in the depths of the beech forest, close to Béni Csányi, and plough and sow to the end of our days. What else could we do? Our country, our nation, our liberty were now no more. Our souls had no wings. We stuck fast in the mire.
On the very anniversary of our wedding, which was my wife’s birthday as well, we parted. Our wedding tour had lasted exactly a year. I wish nobody such another, but I would not exchange all the joys in the world for the recollection of it.
I remained behind in a vast primeval forest, entombed, forgotten.
The latest rumours I got from worthy Béni Csányi, who had taken my wife to Pest, driving his four horses himself all the way from his stable door to the capital. They were evil times there. Haynau had appropriated even the National Theatre for the German players. But the director, worthy János Simoncsics, formerly a Conservative celebrity, protested against the proceedings of the high-handed tyrant, and when Haynau began to haggle with the stiff-necked old magistrate as to how many days a week he would allow the German players to act in the Hungarian National Theatre, brave old Simoncsics replied in his own peculiar Buda–German: “Wen i reden musz, so sag i: amol; wen i reden darf, so sag i: komol.”62 And “komol”63 it remained.
62 If I must speak: once; if I may speak: not at all.]
63 Not once.]
My wife counselled me not to write to her through the post-office, as the whole town was full of spies. When she wrote to me she would send the letter to her father at Miskolcz, directed to Judith Benke.
Even now I often draw out those love-letters which were written to me and began “My dear Juczi.”64 Even now they light up that endless darkness which I call the cancelled portion of my life.
64 Contraction for Judith.]
From August to the middle of October I knew absolutely nothing of what was going on in the world.
It was a corner of the earth where no visitor ever came, and where the inhabitants themselves went nowhere. Now that winter was approaching, there would be a sledge drive, and communications would be opened up between Tordona and Miskolcz. Then one would be able to convey timber into the town. Of timber there was no lack. Csányi had four hundred acres of virgin forest to forty acres of arable land.
Day after day I rambled up and down these forests that had never heard the voice of man. Never did I meet a fellow creature. However many heights I might ascend, I saw from thence nothing but the smoking chimneys of Tordona. I discovered the source of the stream that sped through the valley. “Linden-spring” was the name they gave it. It was entirely circled by lindens. I hit upon the childish sport of cutting a water-mill out of elder-tree wood, piecing it together, and placing it across the little stream. Thus I amused myself.
One day I received a box of water-colours from my wife. I was immensely delighted. I now had something to occupy myself with all day. I filled a whole album with my landscapes. Then I painted that journey through the plain with a horse and a half in the covered car. I painted my own portrait on a piece of paper no bigger than a finger-nail, which could be inserted in a medallion. I sent it to my wife. Béni Csányi’s wife asked me to paint her a portrait of her “old man” also. She wanted it about the size of a kidney bean; she had a medallion just as large as that. This was my only work in that terrible year.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56