Read Csardas Online

Authors: Diane Pearson


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Nicholas Vilag, dear friend,
who inspired and encouraged me
to write this book

From the east came the tribes—the seven tribes—Megyer, Nyek, Kurtgyarmat, Tarjan, Jeno, Ker, and Keszi, and of these the greatest was the tribe of Megyer. And the leaders of the seven tribes chose Almos, chief of the Megyer, to lead them into a new land, a land of mountains and forests and rich plains. The seven opened their veins and mingled their blood and drank it. And thus the Magyar nation was created, out of a brotherhood born of blood. And so it would continue.

For one thousand years the land was ravaged. The Mongols came to kill, the Crusaders to scavenge on their way to a holy war. Protestant fought Catholic, peasant fought lord. The Turks came to conquer and rule, and the Habsburgs stole the land from the Turks and ruled in their wake. And with each survival they mixed their race a little more—with the Mongols, the Franks and Saxons, the Turks and the peoples of the Holy Roman Empire, with the Jews and the Slavs and the Russians—until at last there was little of the race of the seven tribes left in the new nation; but the tradition of Almos remained, the tradition of a people whose brotherhood was born of blood.

Part 1

It was generally agreed that the Ferenc sisters were the prettiest girls in the town. Not only had they a style and poise considerably in excess of their years but also, when they were together—at a party or summer picnic, for example—the effect of the two contrasting beauties produced a most devastating result.

It was more than just complementing each other in appearance, although that was part of it—Amalia, tall, stately and gentle, and Eva, small, quick and vivacious—it was as though, unconsciously, they played to a public, laying aside the daily irritations and jealousies of one another and demonstrating to everyone just how enchanting and lovely they could be.

Now, on their way to Cousin Kati’s birthday party, sitting one each side of the coach so that their tulle skirts were able to flow untrammelled over the seats, they began the instinctive transition from sisters who were separated in age by only one year, and who therefore annoyed one another, to sisters who loved one another and were aware that in public they were referred to as “the enchanting Ferenc girls.”

There was an added test to this particular evening—interposed with terror because of Papa—because they were going to the party alone and unchaperoned. Papa was on one of his long business visits to Budapest, and Mama, irritated because she had forgotten it was Cousin Kati’s birthday party and had arranged to play cards, had said impatiently, “Surely you will not need your mama this evening, my darlings! Uncle Sandor will fetch and carry you, and—after all—you will be in Aunt Gizi’s house.” She had paused, wrinkled her pretty forehead, and added slowly, “I suppose your papa would expect me to go but”—smiling suddenly like an irresponsible child—“Papa won’t be back for three weeks, and by that time no one will remember that you went to Cousin Kati’s party alone.”

The girls had looked at each other quickly, then looked away. They were both thinking the same thing: how daring and
they would appear. The Ferenc girls
be the ones to arrive without a chaperon at Cousin Kati’s birthday party.

Mama showed a moment’s indecision when seeing them into the coach. “Oh, dear, I suppose it
all right? I just hope Papa doesn’t hear of it I wonder... perhaps I should come?”

But the girls tumbled hurriedly into the coach, waving their hands out the window and calling, “Good night, Mama! We shall be late if we wait any longer! We will give your love and birthday wishes to Cousin Kati!”

Mama remained standing, a small hesitant figure in the courtyard, and then the coach turned into the road and she could be seen no more. They faced one another, smiles of excitement and conspiracy breaking out across their smooth faces.

“Your dress is lovely, Eva,” said Amalia warmly, although earlier, as they were getting ready, she had scolded her younger sister for having the neck cut too low. Eva tweaked her skirt and straightened a cascade of roses. The quarrelsome scene in the bedroom was already forgotten.

“You don’t think it a little... insipid?” she asked, confident of Amalia’s denial. “I mean, white tulle and pink roses. I don’t want to look dull.”

Amalia considered, her head tilted to one side a little. Then she laughed. “Oh, Eva! You know very well you couldn’t look dull, even if you tried,” she said, and suddenly they reached their hands towards one another in a gesture that was both spontaneous and affectionate.

Through the window of the coach came a breeze that was cold but that also had the feel of spring, a wind from the north bringing the freshness of the mountains and the scent of new growth. The winter had been mild and Amalia had overheard the housemaid, a girl from the Matra Mountains, saying that violets had been blossoming in the mountains soon after Christmas—winter violets, without any smell. How sad, Amalia thought, to bloom early but have no smell. She was given to moods of swift sadness—moments of controlled melancholy that, in a sighing, reflective fashion, she quite enjoyed. They never interfered with her common sense or her down-to-earth practicality. Even while she was mourning the scent of the wild flowers and savouring the winds of spring, she was trying to fasten the window of the coach, partly because it was cold but also so that they should not hear Uncle Sandor swearing up on the box.

“Don’t close it because of me,” Eva said. “I’ve heard everything Uncle Sandor has to say. And anyway, he only swears when the young men try to cut in on him with their horses.”

Uncle Sandor was a huge, taciturn ex-sergeant of hussars. He had come to the family, along with the coach and two horses, as part of Mama’s dowry—the only part, for the rest had never been paid. Papa had neither asked for nor expected a dowry. The whole point of the Bogozy family allowing their younger daughter to marry a rich banker of Jewish extraction was that Zsigmond Ferenc would assist the Bogozys in their numerous financial predicaments. But the Bogozys—charming, feckless, gay, and irresolute—had felt it incumbent to prove to the world (and to Zsigmond Ferenc) that they were gentry and knew what was expected of them. A dowry was promised, and over the years it was periodically referred to: “The attorneys are settling the deeds this very month” or “Are you
awaiting the papers? We must speak to someone very soon!”

And then, at some point during the twenty years of Papa and Mama’s marriage, the references to the dowry, although still made just as frequently, changed in character. The Bogozys had either convinced themselves or were in the process of convincing Zsigmond Ferenc that the dowry
been paid—paid in full, splendid, aristocratic munificence. It was constantly referred to, especially when Zsigmond Ferenc was in the process of settling yet another Bogozy financial catastrophe. “Well! And after all, it is right that he should help us. Did we not settle Marta most generously with a dowry?”

In fact all Papa had ever had was the coach, a pair of horses, and Uncle Sandor, always resplendent in his old hussar uniform. Strictly speaking, Uncle Sandor was not anyone’s to give, but the transfer of employment was considered most expedient at the time. Uncle Sandor (by no means averse to the change as his wages hadn’t been paid for months) departed quite happily, and the Bogozys felt splendid at making the supreme sacrifice of parting with their coachman—a sacrifice which, incidentally, relieved them of the burden of finding 200 korona for his arrears of pay.

Uncle Sandor rarely spoke, and when he did it was to his horses. But he knew his duty to the young ladies of the house, who were also granddaughters of the Bogozy. With or without their chaperon, Amalia and Eva would be collected punctually according to instructions. And if they tried to avoid departure, Uncle Sandor would knock on the door and ask a servant to inform the young ladies that it was time to leave.

As Eva had observed, he swore in front of the girls only when young men on good horses tried to cut in on him. She had a theory that it was because the old ex-hussar really wanted to be on the back of a horse himself instead of driving young women around to parties and balls. Eva had once tried to spur Uncle Sandor into racing the coach against two young officers. For a second she had seen a maniacal glow in the peasant’s tiny black eyes; then his hands had tightened on the reins and he had rumbled something unintelligible about “not fitting for ladies of the Bogozy.” Eva had never been able to rouse him again.

Amalia, the window closed, settled back into her reverie of spring and mountains. Eva rustled fretfully.

“Malie. Do you think he’ll be there?”

Amalia stared at her sister, trying to recall what the subject of their previous conversation had been. “Who? Who’ll be there?”

“Felix. Felix Kaldy. Do you think Cousin Kati will have invited him?”

“I expect so.”

Eva relapsed into silence, staring out of the window although it was too dark to see anything, and Amalia experienced a pang of envy because she knew exactly what Eva was thinking. Eva was planning how to bewitch Felix Kaldy, and undoubtedly she would do it very well. The Ferenc girls could bewitch any man if they so desired. Amalia’s problem was that at eighteen she had not yet met a man she wished to ensnare. Sometimes it worried her. Eva had been in love at least seven times during the last eighteen months. The year they had spent in Vienna had been one long drama of passion for Eva, beginning with the fencing master who taught at the
opposite their school and ending with the leading tenor at the Theater an der Wien. Amalia had waited for the disease to strike her; now, with Eva settling into a new adoration, she was beginning to wonder if she were incapable of falling in love. She sighed again and thought of the scentless violets in the Matra Mountains. Beautiful, but unfulfilled. Perhaps she would write a poem about them....

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