Read The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 Online
Authors: Bela Zombory-Moldovan
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Military, #Historical, #Personal Memoirs
Absorbed by these memories, I followed the stone wall of the Franciscan friary up to the corner of Zivatar Street.
I climbed the familiar steps and turned right towards Károly Székely’s studio. (We called him “Carlo Siciliani.”) They gave me a wonderful welcome. All three of them were there: Carlo, his marvelously refined and cultivated wife, and their angelically beautiful year-old little daughter.
“Well, I’m still in one piece. But don’t ask me about battle. If I weren’t already injured, I’d definitely make myself ill telling the same horror stories over and over again. Anyway, I’m starting to find that curiosity is becoming the new version of politeness here at home.”
Noticing that this clumsy blunder on my part had struck a wrong note, I gave a mischievous wink.
“Real friends excepted, of course.”
“You may certainly count us among those,” Mrs. Székely interjected, a little evenly. But the mood quickly lightened.
I observed with genuine pleasure that they were all in good health and looking wonderful. We agreed that I wouldn’t say a great deal, but was all the more interested to hear about how things were here at home.
“They’ve called Károly in to be conscripted. He’ll have to join up soon.”
This surprised me: he was thirty-four. Still, the army’s enormous losses, particularly of officers, had to be made up.
“But as you haven’t done any military service, they’ll send you to the officers’ academy for training. By the time you’re ready to go to the front, the war will be long over.” I was by no means convinced of this, but it had an air of logic, and its effect lightened the mood.
At my request, Carlo described how things were at home. The latest conscription lists had caused a great deal of alarm, and now everyone was trying to find a way to skive off. (I had read the mood right, then.) Had I heard what Béla Déry
had been up to? He had set up a so-called civil guard from the members—the younger members, that is—of the National Salon, for which he designed a uniform, with sword. Teplánszky had joined too, and showed up at the coffeehouse in full rig; Márton
had almost split his sides laughing. The idea was to replace the soldiers who were doing guard service here, so that they could be sent to the front. Lucky them. Déry appointed himself commanding officer. The military authorities immediately saw through the patriotic plan, put a stop to it, and called them all in for conscription. Half of them failed the medical, but the rest must be regular soldiers by now.
Most of the table at the coffeehouse was still there. The news getting back there had been very grim at first, though the “wartime sketches” that Falus wrote from hospital about his experiences more or less corresponded with reality.
Of the sculptors, Kornél Sámuel
had been killed, István Gács
had been taken prisoner, and Béla Karnya had been wounded, although—it was said unkindly—his injuries were chiefly to his nether regions.
The teachers that Teplánszky had brought in—Molnár, Heiman, and Kornis—had enlisted, but they didn’t really belong to the core of the group anyway. There was more of everything for those who had stayed at home, and they were more interested in the opportunities which the situation presented than in events at the front. Egry just played billiards with Márton and chess with Mányai. The other day he had been playing with Rádna. Péter Gindert, sitting behind him, asked: “Playing chess? I thought you were learning to paint.” Egry’s piercing pale eyes flashed with anger. But Péter had stood up to him.
In any case, the chess was starting to degenerate. During the game, they would hoot or whistle loudly. Almási, who had tuberculosis, would come flying over in his coffeehouse frock coat: “Gentlemen,
!” Or else they would keep mumbling some piece of nonsense ad nauseam—“Liddle piggy’s gonna dance”—which the kibitzers would repeat in chorus. Or: “Here I am with my drill—I’ll stab you at the end of this poem!” Or: “Stabberola! What’s he after?” Or simply: “Splat!” or “Splatterooni!”—endless drivel, spouted as if unconsciously, over and over.
Then out came memories of the trips we had done together—Brussels, Florence, Chemnitz (which we only passed through), and so on.
It was a lovely afternoon and evening. As we wished each other goodnight, we all had the feeling that saying goodbye was somehow different now: in the background, there always lurked the thought that this might be a last farewell.
As I was making my way home, it suddenly struck me: I would get away from Budapest. I would go and visit Uncle Béla in Sajóvárkony,
in the realm of quiet and peace.
getting to Bánréve, and there were no more trains down the branch line to Ózd. I would have to wait until six the next morning for my connection. Uncle Zoltán lived on the first floor of the station building, and I went to find him. He was overjoyed to see me. Since my aunt had died, he had lived here alone in the spacious service apartment. He had a reputation as a ladies’ man, and his enthusiasm for the fair sex was undimmed. He looked a little worn, and his lanky frame was no longer as erect as it used to be.
“I’ve had the flu. I can hardly get out of the chair,” he explained. I was fond of him, and impressed by the breadth of his horizons, his extensive reading, his fine library, and the fact that everyone on the station staff liked him. He would often treat them all, down to the last assistant, to a meal in the station restaurant, thanks to which they all thought him a great democrat.
Naturally enough, our conversation soon turned to the war. How and where had I been wounded? It hardly showed! What a dashing lieutenant I looked,
and fit as a fiddle! Our advance may have been halted, but we would win in the end; and how good everything would be when the war was over.
He still had something of the daredevil about him; his optimistic, life-affirming nature would allow no other conclusion. But, somehow, he seemed to have sensed all that I was thinking inwardly, but was keeping to myself—or else I may inadvertently have made some dry remark or other—because he turned serious. Perhaps he had expected greater patriotism from his favorite nephew.
“Well, let’s go down and have some dinner, and we can save the rest for tomorrow.”
The customary private table awaited us in the station restaurant. There was a general atmosphere of respect for the “guv’nor.”
We ate a plentiful—perhaps too plentiful—dinner, and the wine flowed. Afterwards, as we were climbing the stairs, he stopped, gasping for breath and gripping the bannister. In the semi-darkness, the pallor of his face shone out horribly. Wide-eyed, he stared fixedly at me.
“We came up a bit fast,” he mumbled. “I’ll be all right in minute.”
We started slowly up the stairs again. I reached out to take his arm.
“Leave it! I’m fine now.”
During the night, half asleep, I heard him wheezing, short of breath, as he slowly crossed my room; slowly, so as not to awaken me.
I woke at daybreak. The deathly silence was broken only by the puffing of a shunting engine in the distance.
“How’s the guv’nor? He thinks it’s down to the flu; actually, he’s got terminal heart disease. His doctor’s wasting his breath. He still has a wild old time chasing women. He’s incorrigible.” The lady cashier circled a finger next to her ear as she counted out my change.
I didn’t know then that I had seen him for the last time. The poor man would never know victory, or happy times after the war. His misbehaving heart just could not wait to carry him off.
My reception at Uncle Béla’s was ecstatic, as if their much-loved nephew had returned from the dead. He was swift as ever to embrace me, and I felt the brush of his puffy, faintly sweaty face from right and left. I was pulled firmly in to his broad, full chest with such intense love that it felt as if I had fallen into a pile of cushions.
His housekeeper, Annuczi, hobbled towards me—she suffered terribly from sore feet—greeting me with her thin, rasping voice and kissing me.
I passed my viva voce on the war relatively easily, although, despite my best efforts, I caused some disappointment by not being a sufficiently enthusiastic advocate for the unshakeable certainty of ultimate victory. These people at home were amazing.
I was reminded of the great aquarium in Naples. For hours on end, through plate glass walls three meters high, I had watched a huge turtle, which must have weighed fifty kilos, frolicking with a ray. The ray measured about two meters across. With a grace that would have put the most sinuous dancer to shame, it hovered and fluttered. The turtle scooped at the water and, where it could, took palm-size bites out of the edge of the ray’s wings, as one might break a morsel off the edge of a matzo. The ray presumably noticed this, since it dived swiftly down to the floor of the tank and, with wavelike movements of its wings, stirred up such a cloud of silt that nothing could be seen. When the silt had settled, covering the immobile ray, the turtle dawdled about aimlessly for a bit before sinking to the bottom to rest. As an observer, I looked on sardonically: Which of them would win?
Those who had stayed at home must have observed things the same way as I had at that aquarium. The possibility could not be ruled out that, had I remained at home, I would have observed the war in a similar way—through a glass wall.
I reflected on all this as I sank into a bed frothy with eiderdown. The room was large, with a vaulted ceiling and walls of stone half a meter thick. It exuded a sense of secure calm, and the silence worked on me like the deathly stillness of the crypt. I forgave them everything.
The only sound came from the door to Uncle Béla’s bedroom, but that was no louder than a mosquito’s hum.
I woke the next morning to the sound of clattering and rattling from the corridor outside. It was the stoker, laying a fire from outside in the big tiled stove in my room. I knew what would happen next: within half an hour the room would be so hot that I would have to escape. A peasant loves nothing more than an overheated room. The good stoker would make a special point of being friendly to me now. The hotter the room, the better the tip!
It wasn’t quite so early in the morning, after all. Only the wooden shutters were keeping the room in darkness. Before long, we could start looking forward to spring.
The days passed. It felt good to rest. Every hour I would hear Annuczi’s thin voice asking: “Aren’t you hungry, Béla?” She really stuffed me like a goose.
“No, I’m fine, Annuczi. You’ll fatten me up, then they’ll send me to the front again.”
“Oh, if only it would end!”
“It will, eventually. I’m just not sure it will do us much good when it does.”
I applied myself to looking through the contents of the fine triple-bayed Baroque bookcase that stood in the vaulted hallway. One by one, I took out the perfectly proportioned folios in their banded leather and vellum bindings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were mostly ecclesiastical texts, with engraved portraits of eminent churchmen. Superb, irreplaceable work. I doubt if anyone now could combine this degree of technical mastery, draftsmanship, mental discipline, and innate artistry. And these artists, for the most part, remained nameless throughout careers which were crammed with work of real worth.
A dying art. Only a handful of copper engravers survive, their skill displayed on the occasional banknote or postage stamp. They, too, will probably be swept away by the tidal wave of ever more rapidly developing mechanical processes. There ought to be a museum of graphic art to ensure that treasures like these are not lost.
One evening, Uncle Béla and I were invited by one of the local farmers to dinner to celebrate the slaughtering of a pig.
Uncle Béla—whose love of food was his undoing—was delighted. He listed all the dishes we could expect: fresh sausage, blood pudding, backbone soup, boiled ribs with horseradish, stuffed cabbage rolls with pork belly, loin of pork fried in breadcrumbs, noodles with curd cheese, etcetera.
Even without the etcetera, this would have been enough for me, and beyond my capabilities. How was I going to escape? Courtesy would require second helpings of each course. And then the insistent, deadly offers of more. And an endless succession of wines.
“Do I really have to go as well?”
Uncle Béla sprang to his feet. The settee creaked and groaned in protest.
“Please. You’re asking the impossible. The man is one of the most upright and prosperous farmers in the village, and a faithful member of my congregation. He would be mortified if you didn’t show up.”
“God forbid! I wouldn’t want that.”
Forsake me not, O Lord.
We set off at seven down the muddy street, a good fifty meters wide, in pitch darkness. I thought with regret of my poor shoes—bought from Weisfeld—and slithered about stoically through the slippery mire. Every dog was quiet; Uncle Béla evidently commanded respect there as well.
Ahead of us, lit candles in the windows identified the home of our host and his fine family. He stood waiting for us, bareheaded, by the gate. The clatter of dishes could be heard from within.
As he led us in, three local gypsies struck up with a flourish, and the womenfolk of the house lined up in front of Uncle Béla to kiss his hand.
In its honest, artless way, the whole reception was rather touching.
The room was crowded with people. The aromas wafting from the corners and lively exclamations suggested that a good number of them had already sampled the delights to come, especially the liquid instruments of hospitality.
I took off my sword, thinking that the restriction of the strap might limit my capacity to cope with whatever portions might assail me. The host’s brother-in-law promptly took possession of it. His face beamed and his eyes lit up as he held the thing between his knees and put his hand round the grip. The glittering gold tassel lay on his thigh, and now and then he reached down and stroked it rapturously. This was no small thing. He had done his military service years ago, and he was past his prime, but—especially in the old days—no officer’s sword would ever have been entrusted to him. This was not just a steel weapon. It was a symbol. A gentleman was entitled to bear one and derived his authority from it. An officer in debt was “down to the tassels of his sword.” An officer’s oath sworn “by the tassels of his sword” was weightier than his mere word.