Authors: Miklos Banffy
Count Miklós Bánffy (1873–1950) by Lawrence Mynott
THE WRITING ON THE WALL
The Transylvanian Trilogy
PATRICK THURSFIELD and KATALIN BÁNFFY-JELEN
For my dear children, for whom I first started on this translation of their grandfather’s greatest work so that they should learn to know him better, he who would have loved them so much.
PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR
into the geographical background of this remarkable book in the spring and summer of 1934, when I was nineteen‚ half-way through an enormous trudge from Holland to Turkey. Like many travellers, I fell in love with Budapest and the Hungarians, and by the time I got to the old principality of Transylvania‚ mostly on a borrowed horse, I was even deeper in.
With one interregnum, Hungary and Transylvania, which is three times the size of Wales, had been ruled by the Magyars for a thousand years. After the Great War‚ in which Hungary was a loser, the peace treaty took Transylvania away from the Hungarian crown and allotted it to the Romanians, who formed most of the population. The whole question was one of hot
, which I have tried to sort out and explain in a book called
largely to get things clear in my own mind; and, thank heavens, there is no need to go over it again in a short foreword like this. The old Hungarian
felt stranded and ill-used by history; nobody likes having a new nationality forced on them, still less, losing estates by expropriation. This, of course, is what happened to the
of the old feudal landowners of Transylvania.
By a fluke, and through friends I had made in Budapest and on the Great Hungarian Plain, I found myself wandering from castle to castle in what had been left of these age-old fiefs.
Hardly a trace of this distress was detectable to a stranger. In my case, the chief thing to survive is the memory of unlimited kindness. Though enormously reduced, remnants of these old estates did still exist, and, at moments it almost seemed as though nothing had changed. Charm and
was still afloat among the faded décor and the still undiminished libraries, and, out of doors, everything conspired to delight. Islanded in the
Romanian multitude, different in race and religious practice – the Hungarians were Catholics or Calvinists, the Romanians Orthodox or Uniat – and, with the phantoms of their lost
still about them, the prevailing atmosphere conjured up the tumbling demesnes of the Anglo-Irish in Waterford or Galway with all their sadness and their magic. Homesick for the past, seeing nothing but their own congeners on the neighbouring estates and the few peasants who worked there, they lived in a backward-looking, a genealogical, almost a Confucian dream, and many sentences ended in a sigh.
It was in the heart of Transylvania – in the old princely capital then called Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca) that I first came across the name of Bánffy. It was impossible not to. Their palace was the most splendid in the city, just as Bonczhida was the pride of the country and both of them triumphs of the baroque style. Ever since the arrival of the Magyars ten centuries ago, the family had been foremost among the magnates who conducted Hungarian and Transylvanian affairs, and their portraits, with their slung dolmans, brocade tunics, jewelled scimitars and fur kalpaks with plumes like escapes of steam – hung on many walls.
For five years of the 1890s, before any of the disasters had
, a cousin of Count Miklós Bánffy had led the government of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The period immediately after, from 1905, is the book’s setting. The grand world he describes was Edwardian
. The men, however myopic, threw away their spectacles and fixed in monocles. They were the
swells of Spy and late Du Maurier cartoons, and their wives and favourites must have sat for Boldini and Helleu. Life in the capital was a sequence of parties, balls and race-meetings, and, in the country, of
where the guns were all Purdeys. Gossip, cigar-smoke and Anglophilia floated in the air; there were cliques where Monet, d’Annunzio and Rilke were appraised; hundreds of acres of forest were nightly lost at
; at daybreak lovers stole away from tousled four-posters through secret doors‚ and duels were fought, as they still were when I was there. The part played by politics suggests Trollope or Disraeli. The plains beyond flicker with mirages and wild horses, ragged processions of storks migrate across the sky; and even if the woods are full of bears, wolves, caverns, waterfalls‚ buffalos and wild lilac – the country scenes in Transylvania, oddly enough, remind me of Hardy.
Bánffy is a born story-teller. There are plots, intrigues, a
, political imbroglios and passionate love-affairs, and though this particular counterpoint of town and country may sound like the stock-in-trade of melodrama, with a fleeting dash of Anthony Hope; it is nothing of the kind. But it is, beyond question,
. Patrick Thursfield and Kathy Bánffy-Jelen have dealt brilliantly with the enormous text; and the author’s life and thoughtful cast of mind emerges with growing clarity. The
and the follies of his characters are arranged in proper perspective and only half-censoriously, for humour and a sense of the absurd, come to the rescue. His patriotic feelings are totally free of chauvinism‚ just as his instinctive promptings of tribal
have not a trace of vanity. They urge him towards what he thought was right, and always with effect. (He was Minister of Foreign Affairs at a critical period in the 1920s.) If a hint of
touches the pages here and there, perhaps this was
in a time full of omens, recounted by such a deeply civilized man.
Chatsworth, Boxing Day‚ 1998
John Murray‚ 1980.
‘And the first word that was written in letters of fire on the wall of the King’s palace was MENE – The Lord hath numbered thy Kingdom.
‘But none could see the writing because they were drunken with much wine, and they called out in their great drunkenness to bring out the vessels of gold and silver that their ancestors had laid up in the Temple of the House of God, and they brought forth the vessels and drank wine from them and increased in their drunkenness and madness.
‘And the Lord’s vessels were wasted among them as they abused each other and quarrelled over their own gods, each man praising his gods of gold and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood and of clay.
‘And as they drank and quarrelled among
the fiery hand wrote on in flaming letters upon the plaster of the wall of the King’s palace. And the second word was TEKEL – Thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting.’
NE DAY IN
of 1906 the Budapest Parliament was unusually well attended. In fact the Chamber was packed, with not an empty seat to be seen. On the front benches, the government was there in full force. It was, of course, an important day for that morning the Budget was to be presented and everyone knew that, for the first time since 1903, it was bound to be passed and, more important still, passed by a massive majority. For the previous three years the country’s finances had been ordered by ‘indemnities’ – unconstitutional decrees, which had mockingly become known in pig Latin as
’ for the sake of the rhyme, and which had had a disastrous effect on the economy.
At last, and this had been the great achievement of the Coalition government, the nation had put its house in order.
Pal Hoitsy‚ the Speaker‚ ascended the podium‚ his handsome grey head and well-trimmed imperial looking well against the oak panelling behind the platform. In stilted words he
on the importance of this blessed situation in which
had been restored between the nation and the King‚ the Emperor Franz-Josef in Vienna.
A few meagre ‘hurrahs’ came from a handful of enthusiastic members, though the rest of the House remained silent,
and stern. None of the political groups – not even the
party whose leader, the Serbian Mihaly Polit, was to propose acceptance of the Budget – gave the smallest sign of believing the Speaker’s words. The reason was that that morning, September 22nd, an article had appeared in the Viennese newspaper
baldly stating that this much-vaunted harmony was nothing more than a cynical and dishonest political fiction.
The article concentrated on the resolution which had been drafted on the previous day by the legal committee of the Ministry of Justice and which, so everyone had been led to believe, would be incorporated into law at today’s session.
It was a delicate and disagreeable situation.
The difficulties had started two days before when a member of the People’s Party had proposed that the recently resigned government of General Fejervary should be impeached. The new government, much though it would have liked to do so, could not now avoid a debate on the proposal (as it had done the previous July when similar propositions had been put forward by the towns and counties at the time of the great debate on the Address)‚ especially as the proposer was a member of Rakovsky’s intimate circle. Naturally the government suspected that the
was behind this latest move and it was believed too that the whole manoeuvre had been plotted in Ferenc Kossuth’s camp of treachery and was intended to breed such confusion and doubt that the newly achieved harmony of the Coalition would be endangered. This was indeed a direct attack just where the new administration was most vulnerable. Everyone now professed to know that one of the conditions of the recent transfer of power had been that no harm should come to members of the previous government. The leaders of the Coalition had accepted this condition since their object was to restore good relations between the nation and the ruler – and the government of General Fejervary had been appointed by the King. That this agreement had been made was not, until now, public knowledge and indeed had been expressly denied during the summer when Laszlo Voros, Minister of the Economy in Fejervary’s so-called ‘Bodyguard’ government, had first announced the existence of the
‚ the settlement of differences between the royal nominees and the elected representatives. These denials had then been in somewhat vague terms, but now the matter had been brought out into the open. The new government’s problem was how openly to face the situation provoked by the People’s Party representative, offer a solution that would content the opposition, and at the same time keep their word to the King.
Everyone’s face was saved by the intervention of Ferenc Kossuth, who boldly risked his reputation in the discussion in the committee when he declared that no
existed since secret agreements of that sort were unconstitutional. This was a
statement to make since everyone knew that for the King to have made the new appointments, agreement must have been reached on specific points such as this; but it sounded well and so dignity had been maintained by oratory. As a result it was planned that the House would reject the impeachment proposal and instead give its approval to an official statement which branded Fejervary and his cabinet as ‘disloyal counsellors of the King and nation’ and delivered them to the ‘scornful judgement of history’. It was further decided that this official statement should be everywhere displayed on posters.
The formula was a good one and all the committee members had left the meeting satisfied in their own ways; the radicals because the hated ‘Bodyguard’ government would be publicly degraded, and the new cabinet because they were no longer faced with a constitutional obligation to initiate an impeachment which would be most embarrassing to them.
But now, when everyone had breathed a sigh of relief and thought that the difficulties had been solved, the bomb had been exploded in the leading article of the
which was known to be the semi-official mouthpiece of the Court in Vienna. Here it was declared that, ‘according to well-informed sources in Budapest’, the previous day’s committee decision would not be presented in its agreed form since it was unthinkable that those who enjoyed the ruler’s confidence should be put publicly in the pillory. It was further declared, and this was said to have come from someone ‘close to Fejervary’, that the former
would himself speak at the next session of the House of Lords and that he would then explain the full details of the
No more. No less.
There was an atmosphere of gloom in the Chamber. The weather outside was grim and autumnal and little light filtered down through the glass-covered ceiling. The lamps were lit that illuminated the galleries on the first floor and the seats reserved for the press, and these too added to the lack-lustre effect for, although here and there faint reflection could be caught from all the panels of imitation marble and the gilding on the capitals, there were great areas of shadow which made the vast hall seem even darker than it was. Even the painted plaster statues could hardly be seen. Only the Speaker’s silvery hair shone on the platform.
Out of bored good manners the members remained seated in their places; but everyone was preoccupied with their own thoughts and they hardly heard the Speaker’s rolling phrases. In many parts of the Chamber five or six heads were bent towards each other as little groups discussed in whispers the new turn of events revealed by the
and the menace that lurked between the lines of the article. Only Minister-President Wekerle leaned back calmly in his chair, his handsome face, which was so reminiscent of that of an ancient Roman emperor‚ turned attentively in the direction of the Speaker. As the architect of the Budget which was everywhere acclaimed he was, no doubt,
the triumph of its acceptance; but his manner was that of a man who has weathered many a storm and whose nerves were firmly under control.
How the world has changed, thought Balint Abady who, as an independent, sat high up in the seats opposite the Speaker. What storms would have raged here a year and a half ago! How everyone would have jumped about shouting impromptu phrases, raging against the accursed influence of Vienna and the sinister ‘Camarilla’ that ruled the Court. Then even the Speaker would have made some reference to the ‘illegal interference by a foreign newspaper!’ Perhaps they saw things more clearly now that they knew more of what is really going on … perhaps at last they were beginning to learn.
With these thoughts in his head he listened to what the Speaker was saying.
As the speech was coming to an end someone from the seats of the 1848 Party came over and sat beside him. It was Dr Zsigmond Boros, the lawyer who was Member for Marosvasarhely. Dr Boros’s political career had started well. After his election in 1904 he had become one of the chief spokesmen for the extreme left and when the Coalition government was formed he had been appointed an Under-Secretary of State under Kossuth. After two months of office, however, he had suddenly resigned without
any reason. Gossip had it that his legal practice was involved in some shady dealings, though no one knew anything specific about the matter. Nevertheless, he found himself cold-shouldered by many of his fellow members for, in those days, while any amount of political chicanery would be tolerated, people were puritanically strict about personal honesty. Boros had only
been seen in the House since his resignation from office and it had been assumed that he had been busy putting his affairs in order. Two days before the present session he had reappeared. Abady had noticed that since his return he had held little
with one group or another, obviously explaining something and then moving on to talk to other people. Now he had come to Abady and sat down next to him. He must have some special reason, thought Balint.
After some ten minutes had passed in which he had seemed respectfully to be following the closing phrases of the Speaker’s address, he turned to Abady and said, ‘May I have a few words with you?’
They got up and went out through the long corridor outside the Chamber where members were gathering in heated discussion and into the great drawing room, which was almost as dark as the Chamber itself and where little groups of chairs and sofas were separated from each other by columns and heavy curtains as if the room had been designed for conspiracy and intrigue.
As they sat down Boros started the conversation. ‘I would like to ask your advice,’ he said, ‘on an important matter which affects the whole nation. I really am extremely worried as I don’t know where my duty lies. If you don’t mind I’ll have to start some time ago, with the circumstances of my resignation.’
Balint tried to remember what he had heard, but all he could recall were some half-expressed insinuations. Now, sitting next to the man, he wondered if they could be true. It was hard to believe.
Zsigmond Boros was a handsome man with a high forehead, smooth as marble. He looked at you with a straight clear eye and a calm expression. His pale complexion was set off by a
beard somewhat reddish in tinge. His clothes, which were exceptionally well-cut, only accentuated his air of
His voice was melodious and he chose his words carefully and well. Firstly he spoke about the time when Voros had made the statements about the
‘I don’t think you were here then?’ he asked.
‘No‚’ said Abady in a somewhat reserved tone. ‘I was abroad.’
‘Ah, yes. I heard that you were in Italy. You don’t mind if I go over again what happened then?’
Boros then repeated what‚ as a Minister in office‚ he had stated at the time. He said that during the preliminary discussions there had been talk of an
cabinet which would take over the administration and introduce general suffrage and that this
government would consist exclusively of members of the 1848 Party and members of the former government. The
Minister had to be Laszlo Voros and, so Boros said, the
had been accepted by Ferenc Kossuth.
‘But that’s when I went to see Kossuth. I wanted to know exactly what was in his mind. I needed a clear picture and I felt, as one of his confidential advisers, that I had a right to know. Kossuth admitted that such a plan had been discussed but that he personally took it only
as a basis for discussion. He said that as the other two parties of the Coalition in opposition‚ the Constitutional and People’s Parties – which had formerly been against the universal suffrage proposals – now seemed to accept this reform, it had seemed to him that any other
had become superfluous. He then showed me the actual text of the
That is the reason why I handed in my
. It had nothing to do with the slanderous stories that I hear were circulated about me as soon as I had resigned my ministry. As they did not know the truth I suppose it was inevitable that some people would believe the worst of me!’
Boros paused for a moment as if he were expecting some
from Balint. Then he went on:
‘So‚ you see, the
really does exist. At the committee meeting yesterday Kossuth – well, to put it mildly – made a
that hardly accorded with the truth. The question which worries me is this: should the matter be hushed up? Should we allow the country to believe in a lie? Is it, or isn’t it, our duty to intervene and stop the people from being misinformed? Is it, to be specific, my duty to tell the truth as I know it? I don’t know where I stand. On the one side I am not bound to secrecy by any promise: on the other I was in office at the time. Of course this is a political matter, not merely a question of professional
. But if I tell the House what I know the government will
like a house of cards.’
Boros looked questioningly at Balint.
‘Why do you turn to me‚ of all people?’ asked Abady.
‘Because I know that you accept no party whip and that you look far further in these matters than do most of our colleagues. I know all about your work in establishing the co-operatives in Transylvania and I much admire what you have achieved. Therefore allow me to explain how I view the present situation and why I believe it to be so serious, even, perhaps, fatal.’