Read The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 Online

Authors: Bela Zombory-Moldovan

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Military, #Historical, #Personal Memoirs

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 (5 page)

BOOK: The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914
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This was how I made the journey home, to face a changed world.


when this line thrilled me: Budapest—Fiume!
I could recite the stops on the express service off by heart. Now I sat quietly in a corner. The magic had evaporated. Sunk into myself, I tried to put what needed to be done into some logical order. There was no one to turn to for advice; I would have to work this out for myself. It had been drummed into me during military service
that a good soldier carries out his orders without thinking, like a machine. There are others to do the thinking for him. That was all very well, but a man who didn’t think for himself was doomed. The color of a piece of clothing, the glint of a weapon, an ill-chosen bit of cover, an unfortunate sudden nervous movement—who knows, any trivial little thing could mean the difference between life and death. Orders are orders: fine. But secretly I felt that my duty to myself was paramount. Indeed, without that, there would soon be no one left to order about. This now seemed so obvious that it amazed me that, during my military service as a private, the very thought of it had been forbidden. Even now, I must keep these thoughts to myself and breathe not a word of them, or the fervent crowd would spit on me as a coward.

“Our boys!”

“They’ll show ’em!”

“Hungarian valor!”

As such phrases flew about, the loudest of my fellow passengers were the old and the children. Rowdily, and for the second time now, there came from the next compartment the words of the new war song:

Just you wait,

Just you wait,

Serbia, you dog!

The voices of the old and the young; voices of women, too.
Toréador, l’amour t’attend!

The train charged on. The stations: Rétszilas . . . Simontornya . . . All these names, once so redolent of charm, rang hollow now. We were approaching Budapest. There was growing bustle on the train. I wished they weren’t waiting for me at the station. The best thing would be to get off at Kelenföld: there would definitely be nobody waiting there, and I’d have time, while I jolted my way home in a cab, to put on a cheerful and enthusiastic face. So I did.

It took me more than half an hour to get home, near the Eastern Station. I rang the doorbell and waited for my mother
to come to the door. The main thing was to show a confident gaiety. Excellent holiday! Mentally and physically refreshed, ready for anything! The call-up? Got to do my bit! Anything to stop her from getting a word in. It was getting late; I’d have to go to bed soon; anyway, I was tired out, and had a mountain of things to do tomorrow. And the day after, I would already be on my way to Veszprém.

My mother opened the door. She had just got back from the station, where she had been waiting for me.

“We must have missed each other in the crowd. What do you think of my suntan? Everyone’s been admiring it. I hope there’s something nice for dinner, mother dear. I had hardly anything to eat on the whole journey.”

“Everyone’s been asking after you. Zsigmond Sebők, the school, painters. E—— H—— was here, she left a big bouquet for you, there it is on the table. Poor girl! Why don’t you like her? You’ll be the death of her.”

“Don’t, please. You’re making me feel bad.”

My father at my back the whole time. “I’d really like to talk to you.”

“Tomorrow. I’m awfully tired right now.”

“Uncle Béla has sent you an express letter. Here you are.”

“I’ll read it in bed. Good night.”

The familiar bed, the bedside cabinet with its thoughtful little lace coverlet, my books, my little reading lamp . . . Dear Uncle Béla! His clerically soothing, pure-hearted lines penned in his copper-plate hand: he asks for God’s blessing on me and he will pray for me. My tears ran into the pillowcase. From the street outside, I heard the drunken bellowing of the “unfit for service”:

Get that nasty thing out,

Pull it out of there!

Never mind, just leave it in,

It’s fine there, I don’t care!

Next day, my mother was up early; I could hear her carefully opening and closing drawers in the next bedroom. Later on, she crept up to my door and slowly turned the handle, so that it creaked (which it never did when one turned it quickly). “He’s still sleeping,” she whispered back, articulating the words slowly. Afterwards, the quiet creaking of doors, then the sound of my father descending the stairs, audible through the wall of my room. I dragged myself slowly to my feet, tidied myself up, and flung open the door with a loud “good morning.” I found myself face to face with my mother, her reddish eyes smiling at me, her look searching. I could see that she, too, had put on a mask.

I held her arm; she placed her free hand over mine, and led me to the dining table, on which a huge breakfast had been lovingly laid out. I gabbled on about how much I had to do and how many places I had to go today, all the things I had to think of, all the packing I needed to do. Would she put some underwear together for me? I couldn’t take much, this wasn’t a holiday I’d be going on where everyone showed off their wardrobes. Who’d be doing my laundry? I didn’t know; this wasn’t something that was covered in the Service Regulations. I might even be like the outlaw in Papa’s lovely old song:

Nor roof, nor barn, nor herd is mine

But bed and pillow both of stone

For company I have the night

And rain to wash my cover white.

I even sang it; but my voice was hoarse and uncertain. My mother inclined her head and was solemn. Right, time I got going.

The street was full of hurrying people. I walked down Dohány Street; my studio was in the Lajos Ernst building at the corner of Miksa Street. With the studio was a sitting room, hall, bathroom and kitchen, but I used only the studio. My neighbors were Valér Ferenczy,
Baroness Ernesta Splényi,
and Móricz Sándor.
I didn’t want to see any of them. They didn’t even need to know that I had been called up. I sat down at the drawing table, where I had done so many illustrations for
Dörmögő Dömötör
and all kinds of other things. The familiar little indentations in the pine table top, the drawing-pin marks, the spatters of Indian ink. All of them friends. The witnesses and assistants to my work. And my unfinished pictures. The blank canvases and stretchers in the sitting room, the easel inherited from Ödön Tull,
the palettes and the brushes, the folding screens, the draperies. All quietly there, all waiting for me. Faithful friends.

I slipped quietly downstairs. On the Ring Boulevard,
the ground-floor windows of a daily paper’s offices in the New York building displayed enormous hand-lettered sheets of paper announcing the latest news, updated hourly.
A huge crowd seethed in front of it. Noisy uproar, argument, and grandiloquence. Street-urchins running in every direction. “Latest!” From further off, the sound of singing. Enlisted men in military caps pinned all over with flowers. Hurrah! Hurrah! People throwing flowers at them. They stepped out proudly, enjoying the approbation. Along the teeming boulevard to Andrássy Avenue. I wanted to do some shopping, but for what? What does a spoiled young habitué of Pest’s coffeehouses, bars, and parties need when he’s going off to war? Who would know? Whom should I ask? I don’t think anyone knows. People probably buy up all kinds of nonsense, which they then throw away. That, at any rate, I would avoid. Actually, I didn’t need to buy anything other than a decent pair of waterproof boots and some warm socks and underwear, which I did. (The boots soaked through the first time they got wet; the underwear stood me in good stead, although I had to wear it for three weeks.) They tried to flog me a pair of jodhpurs as well, but I wasn’t falling for that.

I felt tired. So much the better. Emotive memories were starting to have less of an effect on me. Even so, I ambled along Kazinczy Street and gazed up at the window of my old studio. Lajos Markó!
Jenő Fülöp!
Where are you? Then up Andrássy Avenue, to see the Academy one last time.

I turned into Izabella Street for a farewell glance at the third studio window from the left, then I stroked the pillar at the entrance. At the corner of Szív Street, I peered cautiously through the window of the Fészek coffeehouse;
it was difficult, with the daylight, to identify the figures sitting and moving about in the dim interior. I could only make out as shadowy forms the silhouettes of the figures seated with their espressos around the usual table. I slipped in just behind a man who was going in, so as not be recognized. There didn’t seem to be many there. Teplánszky
was in his customary place, holding forth. I felt a little ashamed to be slinking about, but I didn’t feel up to any of the inevitable chitchat. I trudged on past where the old Kairó coffeehouse used to be: our old haunt, with all its fond memories, and the frescoes by Zsigmond Vajda
I had gazed at so many times.

Dog tired, I returned home for lunch. My father was already there, waiting for me. How wonderful just to wander around until one is exhausted! My nerves felt weary; I was starting to accept things as they were, and to treat the situation as a new experience.

Slowly, I put aside the mask I had been wearing, and noticed the easing of tension in my parents’ faces as well. We discussed the situation, and how things were likely to develop, with a kind of cool equanimity. My father had brought reassuring (too reassuring) news from the office: apparently, the Royal Hungarian Army could not be deployed beyond the borders.

“Write as soon as you get there. Write every day. The post office has issued new field postcards; they give them out free. We want to know where you are every single day. That will be what we live for.”

I promised to do everything they asked. Then I started to pack. I picked up objects that were familiar to me, to which I had grown accustomed, but I scarcely looked at them now. I had had enough of goodbyes. But as I lay in my bed, the terror that this might be my last night of home flooded over me.

The next day, I rose so that we would have no more than a half hour together before I had to leave.

“Please, Papa. Don’t come to see me off.”

My father’s face was pale, as if he had barely slept all night. His moustache tilted slightly, then he gave a silent nod. My mother flung herself onto the bed, her whole body shaking as she sobbed mutely. Quickly, I turned away and pulled the door quietly shut behind me.


been to Veszprém.
Szily Pongrácz’s family used to talk about it because her uncle, Bishop Ranolder, used to have his palace there. He had crowned the Empress Elisabeth queen of Hungary in 1867,
as a consequence of which the court had heaped favors upon him. They inherited a splendid summer palace in Csopak from him, from the proceeds of which they purchased an estate in nearby Paloznak. This was all that I knew about Veszprém and about Lake Balaton, which—as a lover of the sea—I held in low esteem, regarding it as a malodorous puddle.

Veszprém was where I had to report for duty. My train took four hours to rattle its way there at an average of thirty kilometers an hour. The journey afforded me the opportunity to observe, along one curve in the line, that our engine resembled those that Ödön Tull used to draw for
Dörmögő Dömötör
. (After I took over from him, Dörmögő tore along with a Class In locomotive.) The train was half empty, which puzzled me. I was traveling in uniform, with a travel warrant, which had a magical effect, and I received looks of respect befitting a future hero.

At the conductor’s helpful suggestion, I got off at the smaller station, as that was where I would find the corps and headquarters of the Thirty-First Regiment of the Royal Hungarian Army. I presented myself with purposeful vigor, and was received in a similar but friendly manner by an adjutant first lieutenant. I was given the address of my lodgings and five hundred korona—not in gold coin, but in banknotes and silver.
During the formalities, the lieutenant addressed me as “Ensign,” but after that, he adopted a friendly tone and addressed me informally.

“You could have taken your time, you know. You have until the fourth to sign in.”

“Well, better early than too late, I thought.”

“True. Anyway, you won’t be needed until the fourth. Have a look round, relax a bit; once the fun starts, you won’t have much time to yourself. The main thing is to buy yourself a decent revolver from a hardware store.”

I found someone to carry my things. I had been billeted to a very handsome and elegant house. I believe the owner was a director of a bank. They greeted me warmly and asked me a lot of questions. In conversation they were sanguine about the war and confident of its likely outcome. I had the impression that this enthusiastic note had been struck for my benefit; naturally, I had to adopt it myself—indeed, to surpass it. My suspicion was that, amongst themselves, they took a rather different view.

I took myself off to the main restaurant for dinner. Its fine terrace looked out over a park, on the far side of which was a convent school and church. The new theater, by Medgyaszay,
was to the right; its decoration, in the manner of Ödön Lechner,
took its inspiration from Hungarian folk embroidery. Evening fell as I dined, and a feeling of well-being began to come over me. I felt very much alone, though: my usual companions a hundred miles away, my friends and associates, and all the objects of my interests, unattainably remote. I had not yet made any new acquaintances, and if I did, what would we talk about? At best, the war.

I sauntered slowly home. A side entrance in the formally laid out garden and some steps led up to my room. The bed had been made nicely and there were fresh flowers on the table. I undressed at leisure, swallowed a glass of the
and stretched myself out on the unfamiliar but perfectly comfortable new chaise longue. After a few moments I could hear, from beneath the open window, a shuffling noise and muffled laughter. I sprang to the window to see, running off from the shrubbery below, the two giggling housemaids. The young hero had been spied upon
en déshabillé
! A little put out, I lay down again; then smiled as I considered the opportunity for an escapade, though I was in no mood for it. I went on thinking for a good while about the life I had left behind, and found it hard to get to sleep, waking up at every unfamiliar little sound.

BOOK: The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914
9.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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