I must now drop the itinerary of my journey and speak more in generalities; for after leaving the wilder districts of the Szeklerland, I took the opportunity of presenting some of the letters of introduction that I brought with me from England.
For the succeeding six weeks or more I spent my time most agreeably in the chateaux of some of the well-known Transylvanian nobles. For the time my wild rovings were over. The bivouac in the glorious forest and robber-steak cooked by the camp fire—the pleasures of "roughing it"—were exchanged for the charms of society.
And society is very charming in Transylvania. Nearly all the ladies speak English well, and are extremely well read in our literature. To speak French is a matter of course everywhere; but they infinitely prefer our literature, and speak our language always in preference when they can.
The works of such men as Darwin, Lyell, and Tyndall are read. I remember seeing these, and many other leading authors, in a bookseller's shop in Klausenburg. It is true this last-named place is the capital—viz., the Magyar capital—of Transylvania, but in most respects it is a mere provincial town.
A friend and myself happened to be lunching one day in the principal inn—it was in the salle a manger—and we were talking together in English. Presently I noticed a remarkably little man at the next table, who looked towards us several times; finally he got up from his chair, or rather I should say got down, and making a sign to us equivalent to touching his hat, he said, "Gentlemen, I am an Englishman; I thought it right to tell you in case you should think there was no one present who understood what you were talking!" It was very civil of the little fellow, for we were talking rather unguardedly about some well-known personages. I then asked him how he came to be in this part of the world, and he told me he was a jockey, and had been over several times to ride at the Klausenburg races; but he added he was very sorry that they always took place on a Sunday! There is certainly no "bitter observance of the Sabbath" in Hungary generally. Offices are open, and business is conducted as usual—certainly in the morning.
There is some good coursing in the neighbourhood of Klausenburg, which is kept up closely on the pattern of English sport. I had two or three good runs with the harriers, and on one occasion got a spill that was a close shave of breaking my neck. Count T—— had given me a mount. The horse was all right, but not knowing the nature of the country, I was not aware that the ground drops suddenly in many places. Coming to something of this kind without preparation, the horse threw me, and I was pitched down an embankment upwards of twelve feet in depth. Several people who saw the mishap thought it was all up with me, but, curiously enough, I was absolutely unhurt. A pull at my flask set me all right, and I walked back the five miles to Klausenburg. The horse unfortunately galloped away, and was not brought back till the next day, and then minus his saddle; however, it was recovered subsequently.
In the present scare about hydrophobia the following is worth notice. One day when walking in the principal street of Klausenburg I heard a great barking amongst the dogs, of which there were some dozen following a closed van. On inquiry I found that once a-week the authorities send round to see if there are any dogs at large without the regulation tax-collar. If any such vagabonds are found they are consigned to the covered cart, and are forthwith shot. This excellent arrangement has the effect of keeping down the number of dogs; besides, there is the safeguard attendant upon the responsibility of ownership. The funny part of the matter is that the tax-paying dogs are not the least alarmed at the appearance of the whipper-in, but join with great show of public spirit in denouncing the collarless vagrants.
Klausenburg has not the picturesque situation of Kronstadt, but it is a pleasant clean-looking town, with wide streets diverging from the Platz, where stands the Cathedral, completed by Matthias Corvinus, son of Hunyadi. This famous king, always called "the Just," was born at Klausenburg in 1443.
As Herrmannstadt and Kronstadt are chiefly inhabited by Saxon immigrants, and Maros Vasarhely is the central place of the Szeklers, so may Klausenburg, or rather Kolozsvar, as it is rightly named, be considered the Magyar capital of Transylvania.
The gaieties of the winter season had not commenced when I was there, but I understand the world amuses itself immensely. The nobles come in from their remote chateaux to their houses, or apartments, as it may be, in town, and then the ball is set going.
There is a good theatre in Klausenburg. I found the acting decidedly above the average of the provincial stage generally. I saw a piece of Moliere's given, and though I could only understand the Hungarian very imperfectly, I was enabled to follow it well enough to judge of the acting.
Shakespeare is so great a favourite with the Hungarians that his plays are certainly more often represented on the stage at Buda-Pest than in London. The Hungarian translation of our great poet, as I observed before, is most excellent.
It was a band of patriotic poets who first employed the language of the Magyars in their compositions. Hitherto all literary utterance had been confined to Latin, or to the foreign tongues spoken at courts. The rash attempt of Joseph II. to denationalise the Magyar and to Germanise Hungary by imperial edicts had a violent reactionary result. The strongest and the most enduring expression is to be found in the popular literature which was inaugurated by such men as Csokonai and the two brothers Kisfaludy, who were all three born in the last century. The songs of Csokonai have retained their hold on the people's hearts because, and here is the keynote—"because they breathe the true Hungarian feeling." The insistent themes of the Magyar poets were the love of country, the joys of home, the duty of patriotism. Such was the soul-stirring 'Appeal' ('Szozat') of Varosmazty, the chief of all the tuneful brethren, the Schiller of Hungary. Born with the nineteenth century, and at once its child and its teacher, he died in 1855—too soon, alas! to see the benefits accruing to his beloved country from the wise reconciliatory policy of his dear friend Deak. His funeral was attended by more than 20,000 people, and the country provided for his family.
Whenever the poets of Hungary are mentioned the name of Petoefy will occur, and he was second to none in originality of thought and poetic utterance. An intense love of his native scenery, not excepting even the dreary boundless Alfoeld, afforded inspiration for his genius. His poetic temperament and pathetic story give him a certain likeness to the brave young Koerner, dear to every German heart. Petoefy was engaged in editing a Hungarian translation of Shakespeare when he was interrupted by the political events of 1848. His pen and sword were alike devoted to the cause of patriotism, and entering the army under General Bern, he became his adjutant and secretary. During the memorable winter campaign in Transylvania he wrote proclamations and warlike songs. We all know the story of the Russian invasion of Transylvania at Austria's appeal, and how the brave Hungarians fought and fell at the battle of Schaessburg. This engagement took place on the 31st of July '49. Petoefy was present, and indeed had been seen in the thick of the fight; but in the evening he was missing from the roll-call, and, strange to say, his remains, though searched for, were never identified. The mystery which hung over his fate caused many romantic stories to be circulated, and not a few claimants to his name and fame have arisen. Even within the last three months a report has reached his native village that he had been seen in the mines of Siberia, where he has been kept a prisoner all these years by the Russians!
The language of the Magyars was heard not in poetry alone, but in the sternest prose. "Hungary is not, but Hungary shall be," said Count Szechcnyi. The men who worked out this problem were politicians, writers, and orators. Foremost among them may be reckoned Baron Eoetvos, one of the most liberal-minded and enlightened thinkers of the day. His efforts were specially directed to improving the education of all classes of the community. With this end and aim he worked unceasingly. He held the post of Minister of Cultus and Education in the first independent Hungarian Ministry in 1848, but withdrew in consequence of political differences with his colleagues. Again in 1867 he held the same porte-feuille under Count Andrassy, but died in 1870 universally regretted. His best known literary productions arc two novels, 'The Carthusian' and 'The Village Notary,' The latter highly-interesting, indeed dramatic story, may be recommended to any one who desires to know what really were the sufferings entailed upon the peasantry under the old system of forced labour. It is one of those fictions which, as old Walter Savage Landor used to say, "are more true than fact." It was the 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' of that day, and of the cause he had at heart—the abolition of serfdom. In reading this most thrilling story, one can understand the evil times that gave birth to the terrible saying of the peasant, "that a lord is a lord, even in hell."
Yet it was the nobles themselves who abolished at one sweep all the privileges of their order. It was by their unanimous consent that the manumission of nearly eight millions of serfs was granted, at the same time converting the feudal holdings of some 500,000 families into absolute freeholds.
In Hungary it would appear that public opinion is generously receptive of new impulses, and in this particular the Hungarians resemble us, as they claim to do in many things, calling themselves "the English of the East."
"It is curious," said Baroness B—— to me one day, "that with all our respect for British institutions, and everything that is English, that we fail to copy their straight good sense. We have too many talkers, too few workers. We are not yet a money-making nation; we have no idea of serious work, and our spirit for business is not yet developed. Almost all industrial or commercial enterprises are in the hands of Jews, Armenians, Greeks, who are great scoundrels generally."
"The Armenians are instinctive traders," I remarked.
"Yes, true; just as we are the very reverse. But this change has come over us. Taking again our cue from England, we see that trade can be respectable, and those who follow it are respected—with you at least. We try to Englishify ourselves, and some of the younger members of the community make a funny hash of it. For instance, a rich young country swell in our neighbourhood went over to England and came back in raptures with everything, and tried to turn everything upside down at home without accommodating his new ideas to the circumstances that were firmly rooted here. You may see him now sit down to dinner with an English dresscoat over his red Hungarian waistcoat. His freaks went far beyond this, and he came to be known as the 'savage Englishman.'"
I asked my hostess if our English novels were much read.
"Everybody likes your English fiction," replied Baroness B——. "It is immensely read, and has helped to promote the knowledge of the language more perhaps than anything else. We, too, have our writers of fiction. Jokai is the most prolific, but he has got to be too much an imitator of the French school. One of his earlier novels, 'The New Landlord,' has been translated into English, and gives a good picture of Hungarian life in the transition state of things. For elegance of style he is not to be compared to Gzulai Paul and Baron Eoetvos."
"There seems to be a growing interest in natural history and literature," I remarked, "judging from the enormous increase of newspapers and journals which pass through the post, both foreign and local."
"With regard to local journals," replied the Baroness, "we have the 'Osszehasonlito irodalomtoertenelmi Lapok' ('Comparative Literary Journal'), which is published at Klausenburg, at Herrmannstadt, and at Kesmark in Upper Hungary. There are Natural History Societies, who publish their reports annually. Added to this, there are few towns of any size that have not their public libraries. I speak specially of Transylvania, where we affect a higher degree of culture than in Hungary Proper."
Baroness B—— was very anxious to impress upon me that certainly in Transylvania the ladies of good society do not affect "fast" manners or style. "Very few amongst us," she said, "adopt the nasty habit of smoking cigarettes. I am very sorry that Countess A—— has attempted to introduce this fashion from Pest."
Buda-Pest, though the capital, is not the place to find the best Hungarian society. Many of the old families prefer Pressburg; and Klausenburg is to Transylvania what Edinburgh was to Scotland, socially speaking, before the days of railroads. In the season good society may be met with at the various baths, but every year the facilities of travel enable people to go farther a-field health-seeking and for pleasure.
A visit at Schloss B———National characteristics—Robber stories—Origin of the "poor lads"—Audacity of the robbers—Anecdote of Deak and the housebreaker—Romantic story of a robber chief.
The three weeks I remained at Schloss B—— were amongst the most agreeable days I spent in Transylvania. There were a great many visitors coming and going, affording me an excellent opportunity of seeing the society of that part of Hungary. With regard to the younger generation, the Transylvanians are like well-bred people all the world over. The ladies have something of the frankness of superior Americans—the sort of Americans that Lord Lytton describes in 'The Parisians'—and in consequence conversation has more vivacity than with us.
In the elder generation you may detect far more of national peculiarity; in some cases they retain the national dress, and with it the Magyar pride and ostentation, so strongly dashed with Orientalism. Then again, in the houses of the old nobility, one is struck by many curious incongruities. For example, Count T—— has a large retinue of servants—five cooks are hardly able at times to supply his hospitable board, so numerous are the guests—yet the walls of his rooms are simply whitewashed, and the furniture is a mixture of costly articles from Vienna and the handiwork of the village carpenter. A whole array of servants, who are in gorgeous liveries at dinner, may be seen barefooted in the morning.
In talking with some of the elderly members of the family, I heard many curious anecdotes of old Hungarian customs; but "the old order changeth" here as elsewhere, and a monotonous uniformity threatens the social world. Even as it is, everybody who entertains his friends at dinner is much the same as everybody else, be he in Monmouth or Macedon. Distinctive characteristics of race are found more easily in the common people, who are less amenable to the change of fashion than their superiors. Baroness B—— had a complete repertory of robber stories, some of which are so characteristic that I will repeat them here.
I have before alluded to the peculiarity which existed in the old system preserving to the peasant his personal freedom, though the land was burdened with duties. It was not till 1838 that the Austrians introduced the conscription, and subsequently they carried out the law with a brutality that made the innovation thoroughly detested by the peasantry. Accustomed to their tradition of personal freedom, the forced military service in itself was regarded with intense dislike. The richer classes were enabled to pay a certain sum of money for exemption, but the poor were helpless; they were dragged from their houses and sent to distant parts of the empire, to serve for a long period of years. As cases had not unfrequently occurred of the recruits running away, they were subjected to the ignominy of being chained together in gangs; and as if this was not enough, many superfluous brutalities were inflicted by the Austrian officials.
To escape from this hated service, many a young man fled from his home in anticipation of the next levy of the conscription, and hid himself in the shepherds' tanya in the plain. These remote dwellings in the distant puszta were no bad hiding—places, and the fugitives were freely harboured by the shepherds, who shared the animosity of the "poor lads" against the Austrian conscription. In course of time these outlaws found honest work difficult to procure; they became, in short, vagabonds on the face of the earth, and ended by forming themselves into robber bands. They had also their class grievance against the rich, who had been enabled to buy themselves off from serving in the army. The numbers of the original fugitives were soon increased by evil-doers from all sides—ruffians who had a natural bent for rapine—and a plague of robbers was the result, threatening all parts of Hungary. The mischief grew to such serious proportions, and it transpired that the robbers had everywhere accomplices in the towns and villages. Persons of apparently respectable position were suspected of favouring them; they were called "poor lads," and a glamour of patriotism was flung over the fugitives from Austrian tyranny.
During the war of independence these robber bands rallied round their elected chief, Shandor Bozsa, and actually offered their services to the Hungarian Government, as they desired to take part in the great national struggle. The Provisional Government accepted their services, and they came pouring in from every part of the country. At first they behaved very well, and in fact many of these "irregulars" distinguished themselves by acts of great valour. In the end it was the old story; they soon showed a degree of insubordination that rendered them worse than useless to the regular army. By the time the struggle for independence had found its melancholy ending at Villagos, these fellows were again at their old tricks of horse-stealing and cattle-lifting, and they went so far as to waylay even the honved, the national Hungarian militia. The well-disposed part of the community was powerless to resist the robbers, for after the disastrous events of 1849 the Austrian Government prohibited the possession of firearms, even for hunting purposes, so that villages and towns, one might almost say, were at the mercy of a band of well-armed robbers. The Government were so busy hunting down political conspirators, and hanging, shooting, and imprisoning patriots, that they were indifferent to the increase of brigandage. The statistics of the political persecutions which Hungary suffered at the hands of Austria during the ten years that followed Villagos were significant. Upwards of two thousand persons were sentenced to death, nearly ten times that number were thrown into prison, and almost five thousand Hungarian patriots were driven into exile—amongst the number Deak, the yet-to-be saviour of his country.
But to return to the robbers. They had spread themselves over the whole land; from the forests of Bakony to Transylvania, from the Carpathians to the Danube, no place was free from these desperate marauders. They committed incredible deeds of boldness. On one occasion seven or eight robbers attacked a caravan of thirty waggons in the neighbourhood of Szegedin, the cavalcade being on its way to the fair in that town. The traders were without a single firearm amongst them, so that the fully—armed brigands effected their purpose, though it was broad daylight. Another time they entered a market town in Transylvania and coolly demanded that the broken wheel of their waggon should be mended, threatening to shoot down anybody who offered the slightest opposition. The post was frequently stopped, but it came to be remarked, that though the passengers were generally killed, the drivers escaped. This, together with the fact that the post was always stopped when there were large sums of money in course of transit, led the authorities to suspect that their employes were in collusion with the robbers, and subsequent events proved this to be the case.
When the hostility of Austria had somewhat cooled down, the dangerous up-growth of these robber bands attracted the serious attention of the Government, and not only gendarmerie but military force were employed against them. The officials to a man were Germans and Bohemians, indifferently honest, and hated by the peasantry, who, after all, preferred a Hungarian robber to an Austrian official. The consequence was that they were not by any means very ready to depose against the "poor lads," and the Government found themselves unequal to cope with the difficulty, so things went from bad to worse.
In 1867, when at last the reconciliation policy of Deak had effected a substantial peace with Austria, the Hungarian Constitution being reestablished, and the towns and comitats (counties) having got back their prerogatives and self-government, the intolerable evil of brigandage was at once brought before the attention of the Parliament assembled at Buda-Pest. There were a great many speeches made upon the subject, and Count Forgacs with a considerable military force was despatched to Zala and the adjoining country against the robbers. He simply drove them out of one part of the country to carry on their devastations in another, and dreadful robberies and murders were reported from Szegedin. On several occasions the post was stopped, and the passengers were invariably killed. They even stopped the railway train one day at Peteri.
Government were now obliged to take stronger measures. They recalled Count Forgacs, and despatched Count Radaz as Royal Commissary with augmented powers, Parliament in the mean time voting a grant of 60,000 florins for the purpose.
The energetic measures taken by Count Radaz led to some remarkable disclosures. He discovered that tradesmen, magistrates, and other employes in towns and villages were in communication with the brigands, and in fact shared the booty. It came to be remarked that certain persons returned suddenly to their homes after a mysterious absence, which corresponded with the commission of some desperate outrage in another part of the country.
In the space of fifteen months Count Radaz had to deal with nearly six hundred cases of capital offences, and no less than two hundred of the malefactors were condemned to the gallows.
"Wherever they can the peasants will shelter the 'poor lads' from the law," said my friend. "It happened only last spring in our neighbourhood that a robber had been tracked to a village, but though this had happened on several occasions, yet the authorities failed to find him. It was known that he had a sweetheart there, a handsome peasant girl, who was herself a favourite with everybody. One day, however, the soldiers discovered him hidden in a hay-loft. There was a terrible struggle; the robber, discharging his revolver, killed one man and wounded another. At length he was secured, strongly bound, and placed in a waggon to be conveyed to the nearest fortress. When passing through a wood the convoy was set upon by a lot of women, who flung flowers into the waggon, and a little farther on a rescue was attempted; but the military were in strong force, and the villagers had to content themselves with loud expressions of sympathy for the 'poor lad.' He was, in truth, a handsome, gallant young fellow—open-handed, generous to the poor, and with the courage of a lion—just the sort of hero for a mischievous romance."
The following story, related by my friend Baroness B——, proves that there were men amongst these outlaws who were not destitute of patriotic feeling. In the year 1867 a band of "poor lads" surprised a country gentleman's house by night. It was their habit to ask for money and valuables, and woe betide those who refused, unless they were strong enough to resist the demand. Horrible atrocities were committed by these miscreants, who have been known to torture the inhabitants of lonely dwellings, finishing their brutal work by setting fire to house and homestead.
On the occasion above named the robber band consisted of more than a dozen well-armed men, and as the household was but small, resistance was out of the question. They made a forcible entrance, and were going the round of every room in the house, collecting all valuables of a portable nature, when it chanced that they entered the guest-chamber, that had for its occupant no less a person than the great patriot Francis Deak. The intruders instantly pounced on a very handsome gold watch lying on a table near the bedside. Mr Deak, thus rudely disturbed, awoke to the unpleasant fact that his much-prized watch was in the hands of the robbers. Giving them credit for some feelings of patriotism, he simply told them who he was, adding that the watch was the keepsake of a dear departed friend, and begged they would restore it to him. On hearing his name the chief immediately handed the watch back, apologising "very much for breaking in on the repose of honoured Mr Deak, whom they held in so much respect," adding "that the nature of their occupation obliged them to make use of the hours of the night for their work."
The chance of interviewing Mr Deak was not to be neglected, so the robber chief sat down by the bedside of the statesman and had a chat about political affairs, and finally took his leave with many expressions of respect. Not an article of Mr Deak's was touched; they even contented themselves with a very moderate amount of black-mail from the master of the house, and no one was personally injured in any way.
My next story is a very romantic one; it was related to me by an English friend who was travelling in Hungary as long ago as 1846, when the circumstance had recently occurred. It seems that in those days a certain lady, the widow of a wealthy magnate, inhabited a lonely castle not far from the principal route between Buda and Vienna. She received one morning a polite note requesting her to provide supper at ten o'clock that night for twelve gentlemen! She knew at once the character of her self-invited guests, and devised a novel mode of defence. Some people would have sent post-haste to the nearest town for help, but the chatelaine could easily divine that every road from the castle would be watched to prevent communication, so she made her own plans.
At ten o'clock up rode an armed band, twelve men in all; immediately the gate of the outer court and the entrance door were thrown open, as if for the most honoured and welcome guests. The lady of the castle herself stood in the entrance to receive them, richly dressed as if for an entertainment. She at once selected the chief, bade him welcome, gave orders that their horses should be well cared for, and then taking the arm of her guest, she led him into the dining-hall. Here a goodly feast was spread, the tables and sideboard being covered with a magnificent display of gold and silver plate, the accumulation of many generations.
The leader of the robber band started back surprised, but immediately recovering his presence of mind, he seated himself calmly by the side of his charming hostess, who soon engaged him in conversation about the gay world of Vienna, whose doings were perfectly familiar to them both. At length, when the feast was nearly ended, the chief took out his watch and said, "Madame, the happiest moments of my life have always been the shortest. I have another engagement this night, but before I leave allow me to tell you that in appealing to my honour, as you have done to-night, you have saved me from the commission of a crime. Bad as I am, none ever appealed to my honour in vain. As for you, my men," he said, looking sternly round with his hand on his pistol, "I charge you to take nothing from this house; he who disobeys me dies that instant."
The chief then asked for pen arid paper, and writing some sentences in a strange character, handed it to his hostess, saying, "If you or your retainers should at any time lose anything of value, let that paper be displayed in the nearest town, and I pledge you my word the missing articles shall be returned." After this he took his leave, the troop mounted their horses and departed.
My friend told me that he was enabled to verify the story; and he subsequently discovered the real name of the robber chief. He was an impoverished cadet of one of the noblest families in Hungary. His fate was sad enough; lie was captured a few months after this incident, and ended his life under the hands of the common hangman.
Return to Buda-Pest—All-Souls' Day—The cemetery—Secret burial of Count Louis Batthyanyi—High rate of mortality at Buda-Pest.
Some matters of business recalled me to Buda-Pest in the midst of a round of visits in Transylvania. The great hospitality of my new friends would have rendered a winter in that delightful country most agreeable, but the holiday part of my tour was over, and circumstances led me to pass some months in the capital.
I got back just in time for All-Souls' Day. The Fete des Morts is observed with great ceremony throughout Hungary, especially at Buda-Pest. In the afternoon of this day a friend and myself joined the throng, who were with one accord making their way eastward along the Radial Strasse, the great thoroughfare of Pest. It appeared as if the whole population of the town had turned out; private carriages, tramways, droskies alike were all crammed, driving in the same direction with the ceaseless stream of pedestrians. It was the day for the living to visit their dead! Attired in black, almost every one carried a funeral wreath; even the poorest and the humblest were taking some floral offering to their beloved ones who sleep for evermore in the great cemetery.
There is a dynamic force in the sympathy of a crowd. I had the sensation of being carried along with the moving masses, without the exercise of my own will, I hardly know how one could have turned back. And on we went, the light of the short winter day meanwhile fading quickly into the gloom of night. Once beyond the gaslighted streets, the sense of darkness in the midst of the surging multitude was oppressive and unnatural. We were borne on towards the principal gate of the cemetery, and here the effect was most striking. We left the outer darkness, and stepped into an area of light; beyond the belt of cypress and of yew there was so brilliant an illumination that it threw its glowing reflection on the clouds that hung pall-like over the whole city.
In all that crowded cemetery—and it is crowded—there was not a single grave without its lights. The most ordinary had rows of candles marking the simple form of the gravestone; but there were costlier tombs, with an array of lamps in banks of flowers beautifully arranged; and in the mausoleum of Batthyanyi the illuminations were effected by gas in the form of architectural lines of light. At this point the crowd was greatest. To visit the tomb of the martyred statesman is deemed a patriotic duty. The particulars relating to the disposal of Count Batthyanyi's body after his judicial murder in 1849 are not very generally known; the facts are as follows.
At the close of hostilities in 1849, Haynau, commissioned by the Vienna Government, condemned people to death with unsparing barbarity—it was a way the Austrians had of stamping out insurrections. Amongst their victims was Count Louis Batthyanyi, some time President of the Hungarian Diet. Haynau wanted to have him hung at the gallows, but he was mercifully shot, at Pest on the 6th October 1849. It is said that the infamous Haynau was nearly mad with rage that his noble victim escaped the last indignity of hanging. His remains were ordered to be buried in a nameless coffin in the burial-ground of the common criminals,.and for many years it was supposed that he had received no other sepulchre. This was not so, however, for two priests who were greatly attached to the magnate's family procured possession of his body, and secretly conveyed it to the church in the Serviten Gasse, where they built up the coffin in the wall, and carefully preserved it for years. When the reconciliation with Austria took place, concealment being no longer necessary, they revealed their secret. The coffin was then opened, and it was found that the features of the unfortunate Batthyanyi had been singularly well preserved. Several who had fought for freedom by his side in 1848 looked once more on the face of their leader. The subsequent funeral in the new cemetery was made the occasion of a very marked display of patriotic feeling. Later an imposing monument was erected, but Count Batthyanyi's best and most enduring monument is the part he took in the emancipation of the serfs.
Turning aside from the public demonstrations around the tombs of poets and patriots, we wandered down the more secluded alleys of the cemetery. In a lonely spot, quite away from the crowd and the glare, we came upon an exquisite little plot of garden with growing flowers, shrubs, and cypress-trees, tended, one could see, with loving care, "and in the garden there is a sepulchre." I shall not easily forget the look of ineffable grief visible on the face of an elderly man who was arranging and rearranging the lights round and about the family grave. We noticed that the names on the slab were those of a wife and mother, followed by her children, several of them, sons and daughters, the dates of their decease being terribly close one upon another. I had a conviction that the lonely man we saw there was the only survivor of his family; I feel sure it must have been so. It was very touching the way in which he (aimlessly, it seemed to me) moved first this light and then the other, or grouped them together around the vases of sweet flowers that decked the graves. It was all that remained for him to do for his beloved ones; and we could see the poor man was vainly occupying himself, lingering on, unwilling to leave the spot!
We had not much fancy for returning amongst the patriotic crowd gathered about the gaslighted Valhalla, so we made our way out.
We English must have our say about statistics whenever there is a wedding or a funeral, and as a fact Buda-Pest comes out very badly in its death-rate. It is only within the last two or three years that they have taken to publish the comparative returns of the capital cities of Europe, and now it appears that Buda-Pest is in the unenviable position of having on an average the highest death-rate of any European town! By some this is attributed to the great excess of infant mortality—consolatory for the grown-up people, as reducing their risk; but the children, who die like flies before they are twelve months old, may say with the epitaph in the country churchyard—
"If then we so soon were done for, What the deuce were we begun for?"
I do not speak as one with authority, but duly-qualified persons tell me that nursery reform is much needed in Hungary. I know not what it is they do with the children, only it seems the system is wrong somewhere, as the bills of mortality clearly testify.
Then, again, the position of Pest is not healthy; it lies low, indeed some part of the city is built on the old bed of the Danube. The drainage, however, is very much improved of late years, and the magnificent river embankments have done much to obviate the malaria arising from mud-banks.
Skating—Death and funeral of Deak—Deak's policy—Uneasiness about the rise of the Danube—Great excitement about inundations—The capital in danger—Night scene on the embankment—Firing the danger-signal—The great calamity averted.
The winter is usually a very pleasant season at Buda-Pest. There is plenty of amusement; in fact, during the carnival, parties, balls, and concerts succeed one another without cessation. The Hungarians dance as though it were an exercise of patriotism; with them it is no languid movement half deprecated by the utilitarian soul—it is a passion whirling them into ecstasy. But dancing was not the only diversion. The winter I was at Buda-Pest a long spell of enduring frost gave us some capital skating. The fashionable society meet for this amusement in the park, where there is a piece of ornamental water about five acres in extent. Here the Skating Club have established themselves, having erected a handsome pavilion at the side of the lake to serve as a clubhouse.
From time to time fetes are given on the ice. I was present on more than one occasion, and I must say it would be difficult to imagine a more animated or a prettier scene. The Hungarians always display great taste in their arrangements for festive gatherings. During the gay carnival of 1876 "all went merry as a marriage-bell" till the sad news spread that the great patriot Deak was sick unto death. Then we heard that he had passed away from our midst—I say "our midst," for Hungary throws a glamour over the stranger that is within her gates, and, moved by irresistible sympathy, you are led to rejoice in her joy and mourn with her in her sorrow.
Buda-Pest presented on the day of Deak's funeral a scene never to be forgotten. It was a whole people mourning for their friend—their safe guide in time of trouble, the statesman who of all others had planted a firm basis of future prosperity.
Francis Deak was endowed with that rare gift of persuasion which can appeal to hostile parties, and in the end unite them in common patriotic action. Any one who has attentively considered the state of parties in Hungary during the last decade will know with what irreconcilable elements the great statesman had to deal. To the Magyars he said, "He who will be free himself must be just to others;" while to the Slavs he said, "Labour with us, that we may labour for you." "Reconciliation" and "compromise" with Austria were the most unpopular words that could be uttered at that time, yet Deak bravely spoke them in his famous open letter on Easter day 1865. He continued his calm and steady appeal to public opinion till his patriotic efforts were rewarded by the close of that long-standing strife between the Hungarian people and their king.
On the day of the funeral the ground was white with snow, the cold was intense, but a vast concourse of people followed Deak to his grave. On the road to the cemetery every house was hung with black, the city was really and truly in mourning; and well it might be, for their great peace-maker was dead, the man who beyond all others of his generation had the power to restrain the impatient enthusiasm of his countrymen by wise counsels that had grown almost paternal in their gentle influence.
While we were still thinking and talking of Deaks political career, a very present cause for anxiety arose in reference to the state of the Danube. The annual breaking up of the ice is always anticipated with uneasiness, for during this century no less than thirteen serious inundations have occurred. This year there was reason for alarm, for early in January the level of the river was unusually high, and a further rise had taken place, unprecedented at that season.
The greatest disaster of the kind on record took place in 1838, when the greater part of Pest was inundated, and something like four thousand houses were churned up in the flood; nor was this all, for the loss of life had been very considerable, owing to the sudden nature of the calamity on that occasion. The recollection of this terrible disaster within the living memory of many persons kept the inhabitants of Buda-Pest very keenly alive to any abnormal rise of the Danube waters. There were, besides, additional circumstances which created uneasiness and led to very acrimonious discussions. In recent years certain "rectifications" had been effected in the course of the Danube, which one-half of the community averred would for ever prevent the chance of any recurrence of the catastrophe of 1838. But there are always two parties in every question—"Little-endians" and "Big-endians"—and a great many people were of opinion that these very "rectifications" were, in fact, an additional source of peril to the capital.
The case stands thus: the river, left to its own devices, separates below Pest into two branches, called respectively the Soroksar and the Promontar; these branches continue their course independently of each other for a distance of about fifty-seven kilometres, forming the great island of Csepel, which has an average width of about five kilometres. By certain embankments on the Soroksar branch the regime of the river has been disturbed, and according to the opinion of M. Revy, a French engineer, this has been a grave mistake, and he thinks that the Danube misses her former channel of Soroksar more and more. He further remarks in the very strongest terms upon an engineering operation "which proposes the amputation of a vital limb, conveying about one-third of the power and life of a giant river when in flood—a step which has no parallel in the magnitude of its consequences in any river with which I am acquainted."
Now let us see which side the Danube took in the controversy in the spring of 1876. On the 17th of February the public mind had been almost tranquillised by the gradual fall of the water-level, but appearances changed very rapidly on the morning of the 18th, for alarming intelligence came to Buda-Pest from the Upper Danube. It seems that a sudden rise of temperature had melted the vast deposits of snow in the mountains of the Tyrol and other high ranges which send down their tributary waters to the Danube. A telegram from Passau announced the startling news that the waters of the Inn had risen eleven feet since the afternoon of the previous day, and further news came that the Danube had risen twelve and a half feet in the same time. Following close upon this came intelligence of a disastrous inundation at Vienna which had caused loss of life and property. The boats and barges in the winter harbour of the Austrian capital had been dragged from their anchorage, covering the river with the debris of wreckage; in short, widespread mischief was reported generally from the Upper Danube.
There was a prevalent idea that Buda-Pest had been saved by the flood breaking bounds at Vienna, but events proved that our troubles were yet to come. There was a peculiarity in the thaw of this spring which told tremendously against us. It came westward—viz., down stream instead of up stream, as it usually does. This state of things greatly increased the chances of flood in the middle Danube, as the descending volume of water and ice-blocks found the lower part of the river still frozen and inert. Even up to the 21st the daily rise in the river was only six inches, and if the large floes of ice which passed the town had only gone on their course without interruption all might still have been well. Unfortunately, however, this was far from being the case. It seems that at Eresi, a few miles below Buda-Pest, where the water is shallow, the ice had formed into a compact mass for the space of six miles, and at this point the down-drifting ice-blocks got regularly stacked, rising higher and higher, till the whole vast volume of water was bayed back upon the twin cities of Buda and Pest, the latter place being specially endangered by its site on the edge of the great plain.
The authorities now devised plans for clearing away this ice-barrier, which acted as an impediment to the flow of the river. They tried to blow it up by means of dynamite, but all to no purpose; and it soon became apparent that the danger to the capital was hourly on the increase. At Pest the excitement and alarm became intense, for the mighty waters were visibly and inexorably rising. We saw the steps of the quay disappear one after another; then the whole subway of the embankment became engulfed. Ominous cracks appeared in the asphaltic promenade of the Corso, and the public were warned not to approach the railings, lest they should give way bodily and fall over into the water, which was lapping at the stonework. The "High-Water Commission" found it necessary to close all the drains, and steam-pumps were brought into requisition; the town was in fact besieged by water, and the enemy was literally at the gates. The ordinary business of life was suspended. The greeting in the street was not, "Good-day; how are you?" but, "What of the Danube?" "Do you know the last reading of the register?" "Does the water still rise?"
"Still rising"—this was always the answer. On the morning of the 23d the river had risen upwards of two feet in twenty-four hours. Hundreds of people now thought seriously of flight from the doomed city. There was a complete exodus to the heights behind Buda. The suspension bridge was crowded day and night by the citizens, carrying with them their wives, their children, and a miscellaneous collection of valuables. In the town the shopkeepers removed their goods to the upper stories, plastering up the doors and windows of the basement with cement; and careful householders laid in provisions for several days' consumption. The authorities had enough on their hands; amongst other things they had to provide means of rescue, if necessary, for the inhabitants of Old Buda, New Pest, and other low-lying quarters. The names of all public buildings standing on higher levels, or otherwise suitable as places of refuge, were notified in the event of a catastrophe. Boats also were drawn up on the Corso and in some of the squares. From the want of these precautions there had resulted that lamentable loss of life in 1838.
Furthermore, the public were to be informed when the danger became imminent by the firing of cannon-shots from the citadel on the lofty Blocksberg, which dominates the town on the Buda side. The day of the 24th had been wild and stormy, the evening was intensely dark; but notwithstanding, thousands, nay half Pest, crowded the river-bank. For hours this surging multitude moved hither and thither on the Corso, drawn together by the sense of common danger and distress.
I was there amongst the rest, peering into the darkness. My brother's arm was linked in mine, and we stood for some time on the Corso, just above the fruit-market, facing Buda; but nothing, not even the outline of the hills, was visible in the thick, black darkness of the night. "Ah! what is that?—look!" cried my brother, with a pressure of the arm that sent an electric shock through my body. Yes, sure enough, there was a flash of fire high up on the Blocksberg that made a rift in the darkness; and then, before we had time for speech, there came a sharp, ringing, detonating sound that made every window in the Corso rattle again. Once, twice, thrice the booming cannon roared out its terrible warning. It was the appointed signal, and we all knew that now the waters had risen so high that Old Buda and other low-lying districts were in danger.
That was a terrible night. The general excitement was intense, and there were few people, I imagine, in all Pest who slept quietly in their beds. Every hour news came of the spread of the inundation. The waters were pouring in behind Pest from the upper bend of the river. Matters looked very serious indeed. All communication with the suburb of New Pest was cut off by the inroads of the flood. The night, with its pall of darkness, seemed interminable; but at length the morning came, and—God help us!—what a sea of trouble the light revealed! Whole districts under water; churches and palaces knee-deep in the flood; and above Pest—a widespread lake creeping on over the vast plain.
The only news of the morning was a despairing telegram from Eresi that the barrier of ice there was immovable. This meant, as I have said before, that there was no release for the pent-up waters in the ordinary course. The accumulated flood must swamp the capital, and that soon. The river had ceased to flow past; it was no longer the "blue Danube" running merrily its five miles an hour, but a dead sea, an inexorable volume of water, slowly, silently creeping up to engulf us. Pest is a city which literally has its foundations made on the sand; a portion of it is built on the old bed of the Danube. Assuming a certain point as zero, the official measurements were made from this, and notices were published that if a maximum of twenty-five feet were attained by the rising waters, then Pest must inevitably be flooded.
As evening came on, with the cloudy forecast of more rain, the gravest anxiety was visible on the face of every soul of that vast multitude. This anxiety was intensified when it was announced that the latest measurement was twenty-four feet nine inches; and what was simply appalling, that the register marked six inches rise in less than an hour. It was clear to every one that the critical moment had arrived. There was little to hope, and much to fear. Darkness fell upon as dismal a scene as imagination could well conceive. If the water once overlapped the embankment at the fruit-market, it must very soon pour in in vast volume; for the streets there are considerably lower than the level of the Corso—as it was, several large blocks of ice had floated or slid over on the quay. At this spot a serious catastrophe was apprehended.
I think it must have been ten o'clock (my friends and I had just taken a hasty supper) when the fortress on the Blocksberg again belched forth its terrible sound of warning. This time there were six shots fired; this was the signal of "Pest in danger." A profound impression of alarm fell on the assembled multitude. Some went about wringing their hands; others left the Corso hastily, going home, I imagine, to tell their women to prepare for the worst. I was unconscious at the time of taking note of things passing round me, and it seems strange, considering the acute tension of my nerves, that I saw, and can now recall with persistent accuracy, a lot of trivial and utterly unimportant incidents that happened in the crowd. I remember the size and colour of a dog that manifested his share in the common excitement by running perpetually between everybody's legs, and I could draw the face of a frightened child whom I saw clinging to its mother's skirts.
We never quitted the Corso. Though this was the third night we had not taken off our clothes, it was impossible to think of rest now. I felt no fatigue, and I hardly know how the last hour or two passed, but I heard distinctly above the murmur of voices the town clocks strike twelve. Just afterwards, a man running at full speed broke through the crowd, shouting as he went, "The water is falling! the water is falling!" He spoke in German, so I understood the words directly. There was great excitement to ascertain if the report was correct. Thank God! he spoke words of truth. The gauge actually marked a decrease of no less than two inches in the height of the river, and this decrease had taken place in the space of half an hour. The river had attained the highest point when the danger-signal was fired. It had never risen beyond, though the level had been stationary for some time.
Every one was surprised at the rapid fall of the Danube; it was difficult to account for. It soon came to be remarked that the vast volume of water was visibly moved onward. If the river was flowing on its way, that meant the salvation of the city—the fact was most important. I myself saw a dark mass—a piece of wreckage, probably, or the carcass of an animal—pass with some rapidity across a track of light reflected on the water. It was difficult to make out anything clearly in the darkness, but I felt sure the object, whatever it was, was borne onward by the stream.
It was a generally-expressed opinion that something must have happened farther down the river to relieve the pent-up waters. Very shortly official news arrived, and spread like wildfire, that the Danube had made a way for itself right across the island of Csepel into the Soroksar arm of the river.
Csepel is an island some thirty miles long, situated a short distance below Pest. The engineering works for the regulation of the Danube had, as I said before, closed this Soroksar branch, and the river, in reasserting its right of way to the sea, caused a terrible calamity to the villages on the Csepel Island, but thereby Hungary's capital was saved.
[Footnote 22: The Danube at Buda-Pest. Report addressed to Count Andrassy by J.J. Revy, C.E. 1876.]
Results of the Danube inundations—State of things at Baja—Terrible condition of New Pest—Injuries sustained by the island garden of St. Marguerite—Charity organisation.
Though Buda-Pest had escaped the worst of the threatened calamity, the state of the low-lying suburbs of the town on both sides of the river was very serious, and, as it turned out, weeks elapsed before the waters entirely subsided. The extent of the Danube inundations in 1876 was far greater than the flood of 1838; the latter was localised to Buda-Pest, where, from the suddenness of the catastrophe, the sacrifice of life was far greater than at present. But on this occasion the mischief was wide spread indeed. From Passau to Orsova the banks of the Danube were more or less flooded. The havoc below Pest was wellnigh incalculable. The river had in places spread itself out like a small sea, inundating lands already in seed; this was specially the case at Paks, where both banks of the river are equally low—as a rule, the left side was the more flooded the whole way along.
At Baja the destruction to property was most serious. Some very important works had just been completed, and these were all swept away two days after the Danube had burst over the Csepel Island at Pest. It is a matter of interest to note the travelling rate of the flood, which from being ice-clogged was less rapid than one would suppose. Baja is 120 miles below Pest.
The works here referred to were in parts a canal, to feed the old Francis Canal, which connects the Danube and Theiss, in order to prevent the stoppage of traffic, unavoidable at low water. The water and ice brought down by the flood hurled themselves with such force against the closed gates of the canal that they were burst open, and a masonry wall 7 feet in thickness and 250 in length was entirely overthrown. This incident, together with many others, helps to illustrate the action of water in flood as a factor in certain geological changes—the gorge of Kasan, to wit, where the Danube has broken through the Carpathian chain.
In the course of little more than a day the waters at Buda-Pest had fallen two and a half feet; but afterwards the fall was very slow indeed, which circumstance greatly protracted the misery of the unfortunate inhabitants of Old Buda and New Pest, the two districts most seriously compromised. Joining a relief party, I went in a pontoon to visit New Pest. Vast blocks of ice were lying heaped up amidst the debris of the ruin they had made; whole terraces and streets were only distinguishable by lines of rubbish somewhat raised above the flood: the devastation was complete.
On our way to the pontoon we passed a tongue of land which had not been submerged, with a few houses intact. In this street, if it may be so called, a crowd of more than a hundred women was collected; these were mostly seated on boxes or other fragments of furniture that had been saved; one and all had their faces turned towards the waste of waters, where their homes had been. I shall never forget their looks of mute despair; there was no crying, no noise, their very silence was a gauge of the utter misery that had befallen them.
The sea of trouble in which we found ourselves was strewn with wreckage of all kinds, including the bodies of many domestic animals. Doubtless many lives were lost; it will perhaps never be known how many. It was unfortunate that no service was organised for saving life at the bridges. Several lamentable accidents and loss of life took place owing to the drifting away of boats and barges up stream. A friend of mine saw a barge with four men on board jammed in between blocks of ice, and hurried under the suspension bridge and down the stream. No one was able to respond to the heart-rending appeals of the men, who very probably might have been saved if simply ropes had been hanging from the bridge. I myself saw a poor fellow perish in those churning waters; it was terrible to think of his thus drowning in the presence of thousands of fellow-creatures.
The amount of wreckage that passed Buda-Pest gave one some idea of the frightful amount of damage higher up the stream; there were heaps of barrels, woodstacks, trees, furniture, and even houses with their chimneys standing!
The beautiful island of St. Marguerite, just above Buda-Pest, suffered most severely. It was four feet under water; and the drift ice did immense damage to the trees, causing abrasions of the bark at eight to ten feet above the ground.
It may well be imagined that the Charity Organisation Committee had enough on their hands. Nearly 20,000 people sought the shelter provided in the public buildings and other places appointed by the authorities, and for fully a month after the catastrophe thousands had to be fed daily at the public expense.
Expedition to the Marmaros Mountains—Railways in Hungary—The train stopping for a rest—The Alfoeld—Shepherds of the plain—Wild appearance of the Rusniacks—Slavs of Northern Hungary—Marmaros Szigeth—Difficulty in slinging a hammock—The Jews of Karasconfalu—Soda manufactory at Boeska—Romantic scenery—Salt mines—Subterranean lake.
The spring was already melting into summer—and the melting process is pretty rapid in Hungary—when an opportunity occurred enabling me to visit the north-eastern part of the country with a friend who was going to the Marmaros Mountains on business. Even this wild and remote district is not without railway communication, and we took our tickets for Szigeth, in the county of Marmaros, learning at the same time, to our great satisfaction, that we could go straight on to our destination without stopping. Though my friend is a Hungarian the route was as new to him as to myself.
The railway system has been enormously extended in this country during the last ten years. In Transylvania, in the Tokay Hegyalia, in the Zipsland, and in the mining district of Schemnitz a whole network of lines has been opened up. Our route from Debreczin to Szigeth is one of those recently opened. The railway statistics of Hungary are very significant of progress. In 1864 only 1903 kilometres were open, whereas ten years later the figures had risen to 6392 kilometres; and the extension has been very considerable even subsequently, though enterprise of every kind received a check in 1873, from which the country has not yet recovered.
I confess I was very glad to have come in for the days of the iron horse, for it would be difficult to imagine anything more tiresome than a drive on ordinary wheels across the vast Hungarian plain. It is so utterly featureless as to be even without landmarks. Except for the signs of the heavenly bodies, a man might, in a fit of absence, turn round and fail to realise whether he was going backwards or forwards. Right or left, it is all the same monotonous dead level, with scarce an object on which to rest the eye. Here and there a row of acacia-trees may be seen marking the boundary of an estate, and near by the sure indication of a well in the form of a lofty pole balanced transversely; but even this does not help you, for "grove nods at grove," and what you have just seen on the right-hand side is sure somehow to be repeated on the left, so you are all at sea again.
Sometimes a mirage deludes the traveller in the Hungarian plain with the fair presentment of a lake fringed with forest-trees; but the semblance fades into nothingness, and he finds himself still in an endless waste, "without a mark, without a bound." Dreary, inexpressibly dreary to all save those who are born within its limits; for, strange to say, they love their level plain as well, every bit as well, as the mountaineer loves his cloud-capped home.
This plain—the Alfoeld, as it is called—comprises an area of 37,400 square miles, composed chiefly of rich black soil underlain by water-worn gravel—a significant fact for geologists. It is worthy of remark that the Magyar race is here found in its greatest purity. Here the followers of Arpad settled themselves to the congenial life of herdsmen. At the railway stations one generally sees a lot of these shepherds from the puszta, each with his axe-headed staff and sheepskin cloak, worn the woolly side outwards if the weather is hot. They can be scented from afar, and their scent, of all bad smells, is one of the worst. The fact is, the shepherds keep their bodies well covered with grease to prevent injurious effects from the very sudden changes of temperature so common in all Hungary. This smearing of the skin with grease is also a defence against insects, which seems probable, if insects have noses to be offended.
Nowhere does the intrusion of modern art and its appliances strike one more curiously by force of contrast than in the wilder parts of Hungary. Just outside the railway station life and manners are what they were two centuries ago, and yet here are the grappling-irons of civilisation. No doubt a change will come to all this substratum of humanity, but it takes time. Even the railways in these wilder parts have not exactly settled themselves down to the inexorable limits of "time tables." It occurred on this very journey that we stopped at some small station, for no particular reason as far as I could see, for nobody got in or out; but the heat was intense, and so we just made a halt of nearly an hour. I could not make out what was up at first, but looking out I saw the stokers, pokers, and engine-driver all calmly enjoying their pipes, seated on the footboard on the shady side of the train! Some one or two people remarked that the officials in this part of the world were lazy fellows, but the passengers generally appeared in no great hurry, and after a while the train moved on again. At several places on the line we passed luggage trains waiting on the siding for their turn to be sent on to Buda-Pest. In many of these open trucks we noticed a considerable number of those fine Podolian oxen, common in these parts, and lots of woolly-haired pigs, that look for all the world like sheep at a distance.
The effect of tapping these out-lying districts is already producing its natural result; the cultivator finds a ready market for his produce, and the value of land is rising, and "must rise in Hungary," says Professor Wrightson in his report on the agriculture of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
In approaching Debreczin we noticed frequent instances of the efflorescence of soda-salts upon the surface of the soil. This occurrence greatly impairs the fertility of some parts of the Alfoeld. Land drainage would probably cure this evil, but I do not fancy any serious experiments have been tried. Skill and labour have not yet been brought to bear on the greater part of the land in Hungary. It is a country where a vast deal has yet to be done, and such are the prejudices of the common people that improvements cannot be introduced at once and without some caution; in fact, the material conditions of the country itself and the climate necessitate considerable experience on the part of any foreigner who may settle in Hungary and think to import new fashions in agriculture.
Stopping at Debreczin only long enough to get a little supper at the station restaurant, we pursued our journey through the night. I do not imagine that we lost much that was worthy of note owing to the darkness, for the line continues to traverse a sanely plain utterly devoid of good scenery. Towards morning we passed two important towns—namely, Nagy Karoly and Szathmar. The hitter is the seat of a Catholic bishop, and has no less than 19,000 inhabitants—a good-sized place for Hungary. In 1711 the peace between the Austrians and Rakoczy was signed in this town. Not far from here are the celebrated gold, silver, and lead mines of Nagy Banya.
We arrived at the junction station of Kiraly-haza early in the morning, and there learned the agreeable news that we must wait ten hours, though only a few miles from our destination. From this place there is a line to Satoralja-Uihely, a junction on the main line between Buda-Pest and Lemberg. The town of Kiraly-haza is situated in a wide valley bounded by high mountains. The plain is left far behind, and we are once more under the shadow of the Carpathians. The heat of the day was intense, and there was not much in the immediate neighbourhood to tempt us out in the broiling sun, so we just got through the time as best we could. The food was very bad and the wine execrable, an adulterated mixture not worthy of the name. This is a rare occurrence in Hungary, and it ought not to have been the case here, for there are good vineyards close to the town.
It was getting towards evening before our train appeared, and when it stopped at the station as wild a looking crew turned out of the carriages as I ever remember to have seen. On inquiry I found that these people were Rusniacks. Their occupation at this time of the year is to convey rafts down the Theiss. It seems their work was done, and they were returning by train. After the halt of ten minutes, and when the passengers were resuming their seats, I found that these fellows were all crowded into some empty horse-boxes attached to the train. The officials treated them as if they were very little better than cattle. These people, with their shoeless feet encased in thongs of leather, with garments unconscious of the tailor's art, and in some instances regardless of the primary object of clothes as a human institution, were the most uncivilised of any I had yet seen in Hungary.
These Rusniacks, or "Little Russians," as they are called, are tolerably numerous—not less than 470,000, according to statistical returns. They are to be found almost exclusively in the north-east of Hungary. They were fugitives in the old days from Russia, to whom they are intensely antagonistic, having probably suffered from her persecutions. In religion they are dissenters from the orthodox Greek Church, assimilating more with Roman Catholicism. These people are another variety in the strange mixture of races to be found in Hungary. It is thought, and it would seem probable, that the very fact of the military conscription will help to civilise these Rusniacks by drawing them out of their savage isolation in the wild valleys of the Marmaros Mountains.
There are many peculiarities respecting the races inhabiting the northern parts of Hungary. It would be a great mistake to put the Slavs of the north in the same category with the Slavs of the south: the former are on far better terms with the Magyars; they are for the most part contented, hard-working people, not troubling themselves at all about Panslavism. The reason is not far to seek. The Slovacks, as they are called by way of distinction, numbering about two millions, do not belong to the Greek Church. The greater proportion are Roman Catholics, the rest Lutherans and Calvinists. Many of the Catholics are said to be descended from refugees who fled from the tyranny of the Greek Church in Polish Russia.
After leaving Kiraly-haza we got into charming scenery. As we approached the Carpathians we passed through vast oak-forests, and here and there had a glimpse of the Theiss rushing along over its stony bed. Occasionally we caught sight of herds of buffaloes bathing in the river. It is difficult to imagine that these fierce-looking creatures, with their massive shaggy heads, can ever be tractable; yet they can be managed, though only by kindness—"the rod of correction they cannot bear." At length we reached the end of our railway journey. Marmaros Szigeth is the present terminus of the line, and I should say will very probably remain such; for the iron road would hardly meander through the denies and over the heights of the Carpathians, to descend into the sparsely-inhabited wilds of the Bukovina. We sought out the principal inn at Szigeth, a wretched place, with only one room and a single bed at our disposal.
My friend took possession of the bed at my request, for I told him I was quite independent of the luxury, having provided myself before I left England with an excellent hammock made of twine. I had learned to sleep in these contrivances during my naval volunteer days, but the order to "sling hammocks" would not have been easy to obey under the present circumstances. I was forced to put my screws in the floor and hang my net over some heavy furniture; but when I got in, the table that I had chiefly depended upon gave way with a crash, and I found myself on the floor. My friend laughed heartily; he had never seen a hammock before, and, spite of my representations, I do not think he was properly impressed by the great utility of the invention. Of course I was not to be foiled, so I cast about for another method of "fixing." I tried several dodges, but nothing answered exactly; something always gave way after a few minutes of repose—either I came down with a bump, or some abominable, ramshackle chest of drawers got over-turned.
Now my friend was very tired and sleepy, and desired nothing so much as a little repose. My experiments ceased to interest him, and the noise caused by my repeated misfortunes irritated him. A large-minded man would have admired my tenacity of purpose, but he did not. One can never tell what people are till we travel with them. In a tone of mingled solicitude and irritation he offered to vacate his bed in my favour. He declared he would willingly lie on the hard floor, or indeed, if I would only consent to take his place, he would sit bolt upright in a chair through the livelong night.
"I will do anything," he added piteously, "if you will only be quiet and not try to hang yourself any more in that horrible netting."
I would not hear of my friend leaving his bed, and after one or two more mischances self and hammock were suspended for the night at an angle a trifle too low for the head. Except for the honour and glory of the thing, perhaps I might have slept as well on the floor; but one does not carry a patent contrivance all across Europe to be balked of its use after all.
My friend woke me once during the night by shaking me roughly. He said I had nightmare, and made "such a devil of a row that he could not sleep." I have some dreamy recollection of finding myself in a London drawing-room in the inexpressibly scanty garments of a Rusniack, and when I turned to leave in all decent haste I found the way barred by an insolent fellow with the head of a buffalo bull. When I awoke in the early morning I found my friend already dressed and rather sulky. He observed that he had never met a man so addicted to nightmare as myself, adding, that another time if I must sleep in my hammock, it would be better to see that the head was higher than the feet.
"It does not make any difference to me," I replied cheerfully, "I am as fresh as a lark."
There was no time for further discussion, for our breakfast was ready (a very bad breakfast it was, too), and the vehicle we had chartered the night before was also waiting to convey us some miles into the interior of the country, to the soda manufactory at Boeska. On our way we passed through the village of Karasconfalu, inhabited entirely by Polish Jews. The dirt and squalor of this place beggar description. The dwellings are not houses, but are simply holes burrowed in the sandbanks, with an upright stone set up in front to represent a door; windows and chimneys are unknown. If it were not for a few erections more like ordinary human habitations, the place might have passed for a gigantic rabbit-warren. As we drove through we saw some of the villagers engaged in slaughtering calves and sheep in the middle of the road, the blood running down into a self-made gutter; it was a sickening sight. The people themselves have a most peculiar physiognomy, especially the men, who in addition to long beards wear corkscrew ringlets, which give them a very odd appearance. Their principal garment is a kind of long brown dressing-gown, which in its filthy grimness suits the wearer down to the ground. The feet are bound up in thongs of leather. The shoemaker's trade is apparently unknown in these parts. The inhabitants of this delightful village have the reputation of being a set of born cheats and swindlers; if it is true, then certainly the moral is plain, that dishonesty is not a thriving trade. The fact is, being all of one sort, the profession is overcrowded, and the result is that the sharpest amongst them emigrate, or rather I should say go farther a-field to exercise their craft. I am told that many of the low Jews, who make themselves a byword and a reproach by their practices of cheating and usury throughout Hungary, may be traced back to this foul nest in the Marmaros Mountains. It would be well for the credit of the Jewish community in Hungary, as well as elsewhere, if something were done to raise these people out of the utter degradation which surrounds them from their birth.
Not far beyond Karasconfalu we came upon Boeska, situated in the midst of the most beautiful and romantic scenery, not at all suggestive of the neighbourhood of a chemical manufactory. Putting up at the house of the manager of the works, we remained here two or three days, during which time we made some excursions into the heart of the mountains. One of our drives took us some miles along the side of the beautiful river Theiss, which though a proverbial sluggard when it reaches the plain, is here a swift and impetuous stream. Our object was to see the timber-rafts pass over the rapids; it was a very exciting scene, and as this was a favourable season, owing to the state of the river, we came in just at the right time. The Rusniacks—the people generally employed in this perilous work—certainly display great skill and coolness in the management of their ticklish craft. If by any mischance the timbers come in contact with the rocks, then the danger is extreme; and hardly a year passes that some of the poor fellows do not get carried away in the swirling waters, which have made for themselves deep and treacherous holes in this part of the stream.
The pine-trees in the forests of the Marmaros Mountains are simply magnificent; the birch and oak are hardly less remarkable. It is really grievous to see the amount of ruthless destruction which is allowed to go on in these valuable forests, more especially in those belonging to the State. It is the old story—the Rusniack herdsman, to get herbage for his cattle, will set fire to the forest, and perhaps burn some hundreds of acres of standing timber. The result brings very little good to himself; but the blackened trunks of thousands of half-burned trees bear witness to the peasant's inveterate love of waste, and the utter inefficiency of the forest laws, or rather of their administration. Throughout Hungary it is the same, the power of the law does not make itself felt in the remoter provinces. For example, in the year 1877 there have been scores of incendiary fires in the county of Zemplin; homesteads, hayricks, and woods have suffered, and yet punishment rarely falls on the offender. Government should look to this, for lawlessness is a most infectious disorder.
The Marmaros district is chiefly known for the salt mines, which have been worked here for centuries. Salt is a Government monopoly in Hungary, and is sold at the high price of five florins the hundredweight, forming, in fact, an important source of revenue. The mines at Slatina, not far from Szigeth, are well worth a visit. One of the chambers is of immense size; in this a pyramid of salt is left untouched, and by its downward growth marks the progress of excavation. At the foot of this pyramid is a little altar, where every year, on the 3d of March, mass is celebrated with great ceremony, that being the day of Kunigunde, the patron saint of the mines.
One of our expeditions was to visit the mines at Ronasick. Here, too, is an enormous cave with a dome-shaped roof, one hundred and fifty feet above the surface of the water, which covers the floor to the amazing depth, it is said, of three hundred feet. Part of the visitor's programme is to be paddled about on this subterranean lake. We embarked on a raft slowly propelled by rowers; a cresset fire burning brightly at the prow of our craft cast strange lights and shadows on the black waters, added to which the shimmering reflection of the white-ribbed walls had a very singular effect. But the sensation was still more weird when we saw other mystic forms appearing from out the black darkness; first a mere speck of red light was visible, till nearing us we beheld other boats freighted with grim-looking figures that glided past into the further darkness. These phantom-like forms, steering their rafts through the black and silent waters, were grotesquely lit up from time to time by the pulsating red firelight. It might have been a scene from Dante's 'Inferno'!
It was with the sense of escape from a living tomb that we emerged from the depths below into the upper air, and here awaited us a sight never to be forgotten, more especially for its singular contrast to the horrid gloom of the under-world. Here, above ground, in the blessed free expanse of earth and sky, we beheld the heavens ablaze with all the intensest glory of a magnificent sunset. One's soul in deep gladness drank in the ineffable loveliness of nature, as if athirst for the beauty of light and life.
[Footnote 23: Journal of Agricultural Society, vol. x. Part xi. No. xx.]
The Tokay district—Visit at Schloss G———Wild-boar hunting—Incidents of the chase.
My first expedition to the Tokay district was in the winter; I was then the guest of Baron V——, who has a charming chateau, surrounded by an English garden, in this celebrated place of vineyards.
In the winter there is a very fair amount of good sport in this part of Hungary. Sometimes one is enabled to go out hare-shooting in sledges; of course the horses' bells are removed on these occasions. Hares are not preserved in the Tokay district, but they are pretty numerous. I myself shot fifty-four in the space of a few weeks, which is nothing compared to an English battue of a single day; but then this is sport, and there is immense pleasure in dashing right across country behind a pair of fleet horses, thinking yourself well repaid if you bag a couple or three hares in the afternoon's scamper. For wolf and wild-boar hunting one must penetrate into the forests which extend in the rear of the southern slopes of this Tokay range of hills.
During my stay at G—— a party was got up for a few days' shooting in the interior. On this occasion we were to shoot in Baron Beust's forests, which extend over an area of about forty miles square; as it may be supposed, the sport is not the easy affair it is in the well-stocked parks of Bohemia.
There was not snow enough for sledging, so we drove to the rendezvous on wheels, using the springless carts of the country, the roads being far too rough for ordinary carriages. Wrapped in our bundas, we were proof against the cold. The wolf-skin collar turned up rises above the head and forms a capital protection; and very necessary it was on this occasion, for there was a keen cutting wind the day we started.
I carried a smooth-bore breechloader charged with the largest buck-shot in one barrel and with a bullet in the other. In Hungary the forests are usually so thick that one scarcely ever fires at a long range, and heavy shot at a short distance in a thicket is better than a bullet. After driving in a break-neck fashion for about two hours we arrived at the river Bodrog, a tributary of the Theiss. Nearly every winter the country hereabouts is under water; I remember once seeing it when there was all the appearance of an extensive inland sea. Sometimes the inundations are disastrous, but the ordinary flood is an accepted event, and no damage accrues beyond the prevalence of marsh fever in April and May, when the water recedes. This part of the country offers first-rate wildfowl-shooting in the season.
Everywhere in Hungary the different races are strangely mixed up together: the Tokay Hegyalia, it is true, is chiefly peopled by Magyars, and the language is said to be the purest Magyar spoken anywhere; but there are Slavs and Jews amongst them, and our drive of twenty miles brought us into an area where the Slavs predominate. The difference of these races is very marked: the one, fair complexioned and blue eyed; the Magyar, dark, almost swarthy amongst the lower classes. At Olasz-Liszka, a small town within the Tokay district, there is an Italian colony, as the name Olasz (Italian) would imply. As long ago as the days of Bela II. this place was peopled by Italian immigrants from the neighbourhood of Venice, invited hither by the king, who greatly encouraged the cultivation of the vine.
Go where you will in this country, there is a Babel of tongues. In this instance our special coachman was a Bohemian, speaking his own language—a very different dialect from the Slovacks who were the "beaters" for our hunt. The gamekeepers, or rather the foresters (for the game is of secondary consideration), were all Magyars. Their language, as we know, bears no affinity to any of the rest. The marvel is that the world gets on at all down here. The gentlemen of our party spoke together indifferently German, French, and English.
It is curious to hear the peasant come out with, "Why the Tartar are you doing this?" for an angry expletive. It is a relic of the old troubled times when the country suffered from the frequent depredations of Turks and Tartars. The Tokay district, say the chronicles, was fearfully harassed by the Turks as late as 1678.
It is worth while recalling a contemporaneous fact. In 1529 the crescent had been substituted for the cross on the Cathedral of Vienna to propitiate the Turks, and it was not till 1683 that the symbol of the dreaded Moslem was removed. When the Hungarians ceased to fear the Turk, they ceased to hate him; and since 1848 they remember only the generous hospitality of the Porte, and the cruel aggressions and treachery of the Russians. The Slav has a longer memory, for to this day he repeats the saying, "Where the Turk comes, there no grass grows."
When we arrived at our destination our appetites were far too keenly set to think about the Eastern Question, and right glad were we to see active preparations for supper. The national dishes, the gulyas hus and the paprika handl, were produced amongst a number of other good things, such as roast hare. You get to like the paprika, or red pepper, very much. I wonder it is not introduced into English cookery, it makes such a pretty-coloured gravy. If the traveller finds himself attacked by marsh fever, and should chance to be without quinine (a great mistake, by the way), let him substitute a spoonful of paprika mixed with a little red wine, repeating the dose every four hours if necessary. While smoking our peace-pipes after supper, one of the keepers came in to announce the welcome fact that it was snowing hard; fresh-lain snow would materially increase our chances of tracking the wild-boar.
Next morning when we started the weather had somewhat cleared, which was just as well, seeing we had to walk two or three miles to our first battue. Arrived at the rendezvous, we found the "beaters" waiting for us. They were a wild-looking crew were those Slovacks, with shaggy coats of black sheepskin, and in their hands the usual long staff with the axe at one end. Notwithstanding their uncouth appearance, later experience has shown me that the Slovacks, as a rule, are patient, hard-working people.
The forest where we were consisted entirely of beech and oak. The acorns attract the wild-boar, which have increased in a very remarkable manner in this locality. I was told that twenty years ago there were no wild-boar in these forests, while now there are hundreds. This seems odd, for the oak-trees are pretty well as old as the hills, and offered the same temptation in the way of food formerly as now. In fact the increase of the wild-boar is a serious nuisance to the vine-grower, for they tramp across to the southern hill-slopes, and occasionally make raids on the vineyards, devouring the grapes with unparalleled greediness, and what is still worse, they will sometimes plough up and destroy a whole plot of carefully-tended vineyard.
Formerly there were many deer in these forests, but now there are only a few roedeer. We saw no traces of wolves on this occasion, but there are plenty in this part of the country.
We were only ten guns, and were soon posted each man in his proper position waiting for the schwarzwild, as the Germans say; but, alas! nothing appeared till the beaters themselves came in sight. So we had to organise battue number two. The beaters walk quietly forward, tapping the trees now and then. This is quite noise enough for the purpose of rousing the game; if they shouted or made too much row, the game would get wild and scared.
In the next battue I had hardly been five minutes at my post when I heard from behind the breaking of dead branches, as of some animal advancing slowly. It was a fine buck which made his appearance, but he scented me and made off. Again about a hundred yards off I got a glimpse of him between the trees. I fired with effect. We found him afterwards about two hundred yards farther on, where he had fallen. It was very provoking; up to lunch-time we sighted no wild-boar, though we saw by the snow that they must have been about the hillside during the night. We had soon a good fire blazing, at which robber-steak was nicely cooked. I never enjoyed anything more. We washed down our repast with good Tokay.
After luncheon we commenced work again. By this time we had advanced into the very heart of the forest. The smooth boles of the tall beech-trees looked grand in their winter nakedness, rising like columns from the white frost-bespangled ground. I took up my stand, gun in readiness, waiting for the tramp, the snort, or the grizzly dark form of the wild-boar, but nothing came to disturb the utter solitude of the scene.
But hark! I hear shots fired repeatedly in the lower valley. I, too, begin to look out with quickened pulse, peering into the misty depths of the forest, and with ear alert for every sound, but all to no purpose. Nothing comes my way, though again I hear two more shots echo sharply in the narrow valley nearer to me than before. After the lapse of a few minutes the beaters came up, breaking through the dead branches of undercover. I knew now that my own chance was gone, but I was curious to know what had happened, and joining two of my friends whose "stand" had been near mine, we hurried down the valley to see what sport had turned up for the other guns. On inquiry it appeared that at least seventy wild-boars had passed close to one of our party, but the sight of so many at once had made his aim unsteady, and he only succeeded in wounding one of the number. The animal had dashed into the half-frozen stream at the bottom of the valley, and our friend had to reload and give him his final shot there.
We formed one more battue, but nothing came of it, and it was already high time to return to our quarters, for the whole scene was growing dim in the wintry twilight. Some of the party, myself included, went by arrangement to the house of one of the foresters. The good people, in their desire to be hospitable, gave us a warm reception. They had heated the rooms to such an extent that we were almost baked alive.
The next morning we resumed our sport. During the first battue eight wild-boars were sighted. One was shot instantly; the others broke through the line of beaters, but in doing so a very unusual thing happened, for one of the foresters succeeded in killing a boar by a tremendous blow from his axe. We were very much surprised that the animal had come near enough, for as a rule they will not approach human beings except when wounded, and then they are most formidable assailants. I regret to say that one of our dogs was ripped up by one of this herd of eight.
This was the beginning and end of our sport for the day. Our indifferent luck was to be accounted for from the fact of there being, comparatively speaking, not much snow.
Tokay vineyards—The vine-grower's difficulties—Geology of the Hegyalia—The Pope's compliment to the wine of Tallya—Towns of the Hegyalia—Farming—System of wages at harvest—The different sorts of Tokay wine.
The vintage is the season of all others for Tokay; in former days it was a very gay affair, for then every noble family in Hungary, especially the bishops, had vineyards in the Hegyalia, and the magnates came to the vintage with large retinues of servants and horses; and feasting and hospitality were the order of the day. In the good old times every important event in the family was celebrated by much drinking of Tokay, but in those degenerate days other fashions prevail. Before their kingdom was dismembered the Poles were the best customers for Tokay wine, but they are too poor now to have such luxuries; added to this, Russia has for nearly a century past laid an almost prohibitive duty on Hungarian wine. The fiscal impositions of Austria have also weighed heavily on Hungary's productions. At present North Germany and Scandinavia are amongst the most ready purchasers of Tokay; and England is beginning to appreciate the "Szamarodni" or "dry Tokay," remarkable for the absence of all deleterious sweetness.
In good years the vintage of Tokay may be estimated at something like 150,000 eimers, an eimer being about two and a half gallons; but a really good year is the exception, not the rule. For three years (since 1874) the vintages have all been below the average. The season of 1876 was a complete failure; a disastrous frost on the 19th of May in that year completely destroyed the hopes and prospects of the vine-grower. Indeed he has a trying life of it, for his hopes go up and down with the barometer. If his vines escape the much-dreaded May frosts, there is a risk that the summer may be too wet for the grapes, which love sunshine. Then, again, in the hottest summers there are violent hail-storms, and in half an hour he may see his promising crop beaten to the ground. It has been well remarked that "the weather seems to have no control over itself in Hungary."
The vine-grower's troubles do not end when the vintage is successfully over. Tokay is a troublesome wine in respect to fermentation; it requires three years before it can travel, and even when these critical years are over, the wine will sometimes get "sick" in the spring—at the identical time when the sap rises in the living plant.
The unique quality of the Tokay is due to the soil, and perhaps to some other conditions; but not to the peculiarity of the grape, for, as a matter of fact, they grow a variety of sorts. The cultivation of the vine appears to be of great antiquity in this part of the world. The introduction of the plant is attributed to the inevitable Phoenician; but, treading on more assured historic ground, we find that King Bela IV., in the thirteenth century, caused new kinds of grapes to be imported from Italy, and brought about an improvement generally in the culture of the vine.
But to return to the question of the soil. The Tokay Eperies group of hills is one of several well-defined groups of volcanic rocks that exist in Hungary and Transylvania. In the Tokay district the formations are partly eruptive, partly sedimentary, but nowhere older than the Tertiary period, say the geologists. The Hegyalia (which means "mountain-slopes" in the Magyar tongue) forms the southern spur of the extended volcanic region, composed of trachyte and rhyolithe, beginning at Eperies and terminating in the conical hill of Tokay, which protrudes itself so singularly into the Alfoeld, or plain.
But the vine-growing district does not end at Tokay; it continues on the eastern slopes of the mountain range as far as Uihely, forming two sides of an irregular triangle, and the total length, say from Szanto in the west to Tokay, and from Tokay to Uihely, being about thirty-eight miles.
As a matter of fact, Tokay, which gives its name to the wine, does not produce the best vintage; other localities are more esteemed. Tallya, for example, situated a few miles east of Szanto, has long been renowned. As early as the sixteenth century the excellence of the wine from this district was acknowledged by infallible authority. It appears that during the sitting of the Council of Trent, wines were produced from all parts for the delectation of the holy fathers. George Draskovics, the Bishop of Fuenfkirchen, brought some of his celebrated vintage, and presenting a glass of it to the Pope, observed that it was Tallya wine. Whereupon his Holiness pronounced it to be nectar, surpassing all other wines, exclaiming with ready wit, "Summum Pontificum talia vina decent." This place, so happily distinguished by Papal wit, is pleasantly situated on the side of the hill; it possesses about 2100 acres of vineyards.
The places in the Hegyalia are all called towns, though in reality they are not much more than large villages. Tokay has 4000 inhabitants; it is at the foot of the hill, close to the junction of the Theiss and the Bodrog; a ruined castle forms a picturesque object in the foreground, and beyond is the far-stretching plain. Professor Judd says that at one period of their history "the volcanic islands of Hungary must have been very similar in appearance to those of the Grecian Archipelago." Looking at the conical-shaped hill of Tokay, and the other configurations of the range, it is quite easy to take in the idea, and under certain atmospheric conditions the great plain very closely resembles an inland sea.
At Tokay the Theiss becomes navigable for steamers, but the circuitous course of the river prevents much traffic, more especially since the extension of railways. The next place is Tarczal, and here the Emperor of Austria has some fine vineyards. Some people have an idea that all the wine grown in the whole district is Imperial Tokay, and that the vineyards themselves, one and all, are imperial property. This is very far from being the case; in fact, since 1848, the peasant proprietors hold more largely than any other class. The easy transfer of land facilitates the purchase of small lots, and the result is that every peasant in the Hegyalia tries to possess himself of an acre or two, or even half an acre of vineyard. The cultivation seems to pay them well; but a succession of bad seasons must be very trying, for the vineyards cannot be neglected be the year good or bad.
At Zombar, a village in this locality, there is a good instance of what can be got out of reclaimed land; it was formerly under water for the greater portion of the year. The soil is so rich in decayed vegetable matter as to be almost black, and now grows excellent crops of tobacco and Indian corn. The country north-east of Tokay is certainly the most picturesque side, there is more foliage, and there is also water.