And now we’ll go back to the day which forms so remarkable a turning-point in the life of the Hungarian nation, the 15th March, 1848.
It did not come without due preparation. The emancipation of the people, a free press and a free soil, equality of taxation and equality before the law — all these splendid ideas had been fought for during the last ten years by those great minds which towered above their fellows. The time had now arrived, the process had been decided, the judgment lived in the heart of every honest patriot. The great sacrifices which the metamorphosis required were not demanded, but volunteered. We debated about them in the Diet, party against party, with all the fervour of conviction.
A melancholy example was before us, which, like that fata Morgana of the ocean, the phantom galley overturned, warns the seaman of the danger that is hovering over his head. I allude to the events in Galicia the year before.
The Polish gentry of Galicia demanded their liberties, and emphasized their demands by force of arms. There was no need on the part of the authorities to set in motion an army corps against this new confederacy, the peasantry did the work for them instead. The Galician peasants45 crushed the Polish gentry. The censorship had prevented the Hungarian newspapers from making known the details of this rebellion, but when the Diet met, it was impossible to prevent the fiery deputy for Comorn, the youthful Denis Pazmandy, from raising his mighty voice on behalf of the Poles, and making known the shocking particulars of the bloody massacre to the Hungarian nation. There are many sad pages in the history of the Polish nation, but none so sad as this. And the hand which wrote that page could easily glide over to the next page also, and that next page was the history of the Hungarian nation. Here half a million of gentry stand face to face with fifteen millions of serfs which serve, suffer, pay, carry arms, and are silent. Then the Paris Revolution broke out. The French nation overthrew the throne. (By the way, a tatter from the canopy over the French throne was brought home by one of our young writers, Louis Dóbsa, as a present for Petöfi. Dóbsa fought on the February barricades.) Serious debates were held in the Hungarian Diet. But Pressburg46 was much too cold a field for such things. They wanted assistance from Pest. We didn’t say Buda–Pest then, Buda47 was not ours. . . . Meanwhile the Vienna Revolution broke out. The streets of Vienna resounded with the watchword “Freedom,” and were painted with the blood of the heroes that had fallen for it.
45 They were mostly Ruthenians, and racial and religious differences had much to do with their antagonism. This inveigling of the peasantry against the gentry, generally attributed to Metternich, is one of the darkest blots in Austrian history. — TR.]
46 The old coronation city of Hungary, but more of a German than a Magyar city then. — TR.]
47 It was an Austrian fortress. — TR.]
“So these Vienna people whom we blackguard so much show that they know how to shed their blood for freedom while we glorious Magyars sit at our firesides!” cried Petöfi bitterly. “Let us send no more petitions to the Diet,” he added, “it is deaf! Let us appeal to the nation: it will hear!”
Then he wrote his “Talpra Magyar!”48
48 “Up! Magyar, up!”]
Early in the morning we assembled in my room by lamplight. There were four of us — Petöfi, Paul Vasváry, Julius Bulyovszky, and myself. My companions entrusted me with the drawing up of the Pest Articles in a short popular form intelligible to everybody. While I was thus occupied, they were disputing about what should happen next. The most violent of them was Paul Vasváry, who had the figure of a mighty young athlete. In his hand was a sword-stick with a horn handle, which he was flourishing about in a martial manner, when, all at once, the jolted stiletto flew from its case, and turning a somersault, flew through the air over my head and struck the wall.
“A lucky omen!” cried Petöfi.
The proclamation was ready. We hastened into the street. We said nothing to Madame Petöfi. Every one of us had arms of some sort. I pocketed the famous duplex pistol already mentioned.
Every one knows ad nauseam what followed — how the human avalanche began to move, how it grew, and what speeches we made in the great square. But speech-making was not sufficient, we wanted to do something. The first thing to be done was to give practical application to the doctrine of a free press. We resolved to print the Twelve Articles of Pest, the Proclamation, and the “Talpra Magyar” without the consent of the censor.
The printing press of Landerer and Heckenast was honoured with this compulsory distinction. The printers were naturally not justified in printing anything without permission from the authorities, so we turned up our sleeves and worked away at the hand-presses ourselves. The name of the typesetter who set up the first word of freedom was Potemkin.
While Irinyi and other young authors were working away at the press, it was my duty to harangue the mob that thronged the whole length of Hatváni Street. I had no idea how to set about it, but it came of its own accord.
My worthy and loyal contemporary, Paul Szontagh, occasionally quotes to me, even now, some of the heaven-storming phrases which he heard me say on that occasion; e.g., “ . . . No! fellow-citizens; he is not the true hero who can die for his country; he who can slay for his country, he is the true hero!”
That was the sort of oratory I used to practise in those days!
Meanwhile the rain began to fall, and rain is the most reactionary opponent of every revolution. But my people were not to be dispersed by the rain, and all at once the whole street was filled with expanded umbrellas.
“What! gentlemen,” thundered I from the corner of the street, “if you stick up your umbrellas now against mere rain-drops, what will you stick up against the bullets which will presently begin to fall?”
It was only then that I noticed that there were not only gentlemen around me but ladies also. A pair of them had insinuated themselves close to my side. In one of them I recognised “Queen Gertrude.”49 On her head she wore a plumed cap, and was wrapped up in a Persian shawl embroidered with palm-tree flowers. Both cap and shawl were dripping with rain. I had met the lady once or twice at the Szigligetis’. I exhorted the ladies to go home; here they would get dripping-wet, I said, and some other accident might befall them.
49 i.e., the actress who took that part.]
“We are no worse off here than you are,” was the reply.
They were determined to wait till the printed broad-sides were ready.
Not very long afterwards Irinyi appeared at the window of the printing-office, for to get out of the door was a sheer impossibility. He held in his hands the first printed sheets from the free press.
Ah, that scene! when the very first free sheets were distributed from hand to hand! I cannot describe it. “Freedom, freedom!” It was the first ray of a new and better era! . . . A free press! the first-fruit of the universal tree of knowledge of Paradise. What a tumult arose when they actually clutched that forbidden fruit in their hands. . . . Hail to thee, O Freedom of the Press! Thou seven-headed dragon, how many times hast thou not bitten me since then! Yet I bless the hour when I first saw thee creep out of thy egg and gave thee what little help I could!
Young authors, clerks, advocates, all hot-headed young people, crowded around the invisible banner.
A young county official was now seen forcing his way through the dense crowd right to the very door of the printing-office, and from thence he addressed me. The influential Vice–Lieutenant of the County, Paul Nyáry, sent word to me that I was to go to him to the town hall.
“Why should I go?” cried I from my point of vantage. “I’ll be shot down with cannon-balls rather! If the Vice–Lieutenant of the County wants to speak to us, let him come here. We are the ‘mountain’ now.”
And Mohammed really did come to the “mountain,” and with him came a group of grave-faced men, the veteran leaders of the camp of freedom.
Amongst them was a dwarfish little oddity of a man, the assistant editor of the Eletképek, the gallant little Sükey, who, despite a chronic asthma, fought through the whole campaign, musket in hand. Besides being a cripple, he was a really extraordinary stammerer. When he saw the grave-visaged men making their way to us through the crowd, he scrambled along beside them, and with all the force of his lungs bellowed out this notable declaration: “D-d-d-don’t li-li-li-listen to those wi-wi-wi-wiseacres!”
But the wiseacres hadn’t come to convert us to wisdom. On the contrary, Nyáry had come to approve of what we had done hitherto, and then to go together with us to the town hall, that they might there, together with the town councillors, ratify the Articles of the liberal programme.
It was a fine scene. The town hall was crammed to suffocation. Those who were called upon to speak stood upon the green table, and remained there afterwards, so that at last the whole magistracy of the county, and I and all my colleagues were standing on the top of the table. The flames spread! The burgomaster, the worthy Rotterbiller, announced from the balcony of the town hall, that the town of Pest had adopted the Twelve Articles as its own; and with that the avalanche carried the whole of the burgesses along with it. But the matter did not end even there. In the evening crowds of workmen inundated the streets. They had got from somewhere or other a banner, inscribed with the three sacred words, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!”
. . . Such a great day must needs have a brilliant close, so the town was illuminated in the evening, and a free performance was given at the theatre, Bánk-bán50 being the piece selected. But the mob, which by this time was in a state of ecstasy, had no longer the patience to listen to the pious declamations of Ban Peter. It called for “Talpra Magyar.”
50 Joseph Katona’s celebrated tragedy.]
What was to be done? The brilliant court of King Andrew II., with the Queen and Bánk-bán to boot, had to stand aside and form a group round Gabriel Egressy, who, in a simple attila, with a sword by his side, stood in the middle of the stage and declaimed with magnificent emphasis Petöfi’s inspiring poem.
That was all very well, but it was not enough.
Then the whole company sang the “Szózato,” and the people in the pit and the galleries joined in.
That also was soon over.
What shall we give next?
The band struck up the Rákóczy51 march. That kindled the excitement, instead of extinguishing it. And it was high time that something should be done to quench it, for the excited populace was drunk with triumph.
51 Prohibited in Hungary at this time as being of revolutionary tendency.]
Then a voice from the gallery cried: “Long live Táncsis!”52
52 Michal Táncsis, a prisoner who had been released from the citadel of Buda the same morning by the mob.]
And with that the whole populace suddenly roared with one voice: “Let us see Táncsis!”
A frightful tumult arose. Táncsis was not at hand. He lived some way out in the suburb of Ferenczváros. But even had he been near, it would have been a cruel thing to have dragged on the stage a worn-out invalid, that he might merely bow to the public like a celebrated musician.
But what was to be done?
“Well, my sons,” said Nyáry, with whom I was standing in the same box, “you have awakened this great monster, now see if you can put him to sleep again!”
My young friends attempted to address the people one after the other, Petöfi from the Academy box, Irinyi from the balcony of the Casino club, but their voices were drowned in the howling of the mob. The curtain was let down, but then the tumult was worse than ever; the gallery stamped like mad; it was a perfect pandemonium.
Then a thought occurred to me. I could get on to the stage from Nyáry’s box; I rushed in through the side wings.
I cut a pretty figure I must say. I was splashed up to the knees with mud from scouring the streets all day. I wore huge, dirty overshoes, my tall hat was drenched, so that I could easily have made a crush-hat of it and carried it under my arm.
I looked around me and perceived Egressy. I told him to draw up the curtain, I wanted to harangue the people from the stage.
Then “Queen Gertrude” came towards me. She smiled upon me with truly majestic grace, greeted me and pressed my hand. No sign of fear was to be seen in her face. She was wearing the tricoloured cockade53 on her bosom, and, of her own accord, she took it off and pinned it on my breast. Then the curtain was raised.
53 Red, white, and green, the Hungarian colours.]
When the mob beheld my drenched and muddy figure, it began to shout afresh, and the uproar gradually became a call for every one to hear me. When at last I was able to make my voice heard, I came out with the following oratorical masterpiece: “Brother citizens! our friend Táncsis is not here. He is at home in the bosom of his family. Allow the poor blind man to taste the joy of seeing his family once more!”
It was only then that I felt I was talking nonsense. How could a “blind man” see his family? If the mob began to laugh I should be done for!
It was the tricoloured ribbon that saved me.
“Do you see,” I cried, “this tricoloured cockade on my breast? Let it be the badge of this glorious day! Let every man who is Freedom’s warrior wear it; it will distinguish us from the hireling host of slavery! These three colours represent the three sacred words: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity! Let every one in whom Hungarian blood and a free spirit burns wear them on his breast.”
And so the thing was done.
The tricoloured cockade preserved order. Whoever wished to pin on the tricoloured cockade had to hurry home first. Ten minutes later the theatre was empty, and next day the tricoloured cockade was to be seen on every breast, from the paletots of the members of the Casino54 to the buckram of the populace, and those who went about with mantles on wore the cockade in their hats.
54 The Nobles’ club.]
In the intoxication of my triumph I hastened after Rosa Laborfalvy as soon as this scene was over, and pressed her hand.
With that pressure of our hands our engagement began.
I have recorded the whole of this episode in order to explain how it was that that portrait found its way to my table, which was able to convert in an instant the smiling face of the lady with the eyes like the sea into the hideous features of Iblis. Four months had passed away since then.
And the honeymoon was in keeping with the engagement. The roar of cannon and the clash of swords was the music that played at my wedding.
Oh what a marriage night was that!
At the very moment when the happy bridegroom asks his bride, “Dost thou love me as I love thee?” at that very moment there is the roll of drums in the streets, and the cry goes forth, “To arms, citizens!” An Italian regiment had revolted against the Hungarian Government. Without waiting for a kiss or an embrace, I had to snatch up my musket and hurry off to the place of meeting, and thence to go straight into fire among the flying bullets. We had to storm the Károly Barracks. By dawn the mutinous regiment had to lay down its weapons, and the bridegroom, with his face sooty with smoke, returned home, and again put the question to his bride, “Dost thou love me as I love thee?”
And the answer? Ah! the heart alone can feel it, the lips cannot express it.
That was our honeymoon. With the shame of lost battles in our hearts, and despairing even of divine justice, those who can love under such circumstances must love dearly indeed!
And then out into the desolate world, in the midst of a Siberian winter, with everything crackling with cold in a night lit only by the blaze of artillery, forcing one’s way along through the snowy deserts of the Alföld55 with the retreating Honved56 army! Passing the night in an inhospitable hut where the closed door had frozen to the ground by morning, and the roll of drums and the blare of trumpets aroused us to toil on still farther! Those who can love under such circumstances must love indeed!
55 The low-land. The name given to the great Hungarian plain.]
56 Defending the country. The title of the Hungarian national forces.]
My wife went everywhere with me.
She quitted a comfortable home, sacrificed a fortune, a brilliant career, to endure hunger, cold, and hardship with me. And I never heard her utter one word of complaint. When I was downhearted, she comforted me. And when all my hopes were stifled, she shared her hopes with me. At the new seat of the Hungarian Government, Debreczin, we were huddled together in a tiny little room, compared with which the hut of Peter Gyuricza was a palace from the Thousand-and-one Nights. And my queen worked like a slave, like the wife of a Siberian convict. She worked not for a joke, not in sheer defiance; she did not play the part of a peasant girl, she was a serving-woman in grim earnest.
The hazard of the die of war changed. We advanced. We marched in triumph from one battle-field to another. I was present at the storming of the citadel of Buda. Even in those awful days she never left me, when every night the sky seemed about to plunge down upon our heads.
The brilliant days of triumph were again succeeded by misfortune. The Northern ogre57 threw all his legions upon us. Again we had to fly, to leave our happy hut, and continue our marriage tour through desolate wildernesses, where savage hordes had devastated whole villages. Our night’s lodging was four bare sooty walls, our couch a bundle of charred straw. Hated by strangers, feared by acquaintances, we were a terror to the people from whom we begged a shelter.
57 Pastliewich, by command of the Tzar, invaded Hungary in 1849, with 100,000 men.]
The chaos of war finally parted us. I insisted that she should remain away from me. I could not endure to see her suffering any longer. It was not right that I should accept such sacrifices. I bade her leave me to meet my fate alone.
After the catastrophe of Vilagós58 my life was ended. That mighty giant, the famous Hungary of our dreams, collapsed into atoms: her great men became grains of dust.
58 When the Hungarian Commander-inchief finally capitulated to the Russians.]
I also became a nameless, weightless, aimless grain of dust.
The end of all things had arrived. The prophecy of the lady with the eyes like the sea lay literally fulfilled before me. Either the gibbet or suicide was to be my fate. I was twenty-four years of age, and a dead man. My former chief, the brave Catonian, Joseph Molnar, the president of the national court martial, had set me the example. He lay before me on the sward of Vilagós, slain by his own hand. The last hussar breaking his sword was a spectacle he could not bear to survive. Then it was that a burning hand seized my hand. It was hers, the hand of the woman who loved me. When all was lost, her love was not lost. She came after me. She took me with her. She set me free. When all Hungary was already subdued, there was still one corner in our native land where the hand of authority never came. She discovered that corner, and led me thither with her through every hostile camp.
That was “the woman who went along with me.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56