A passage from Book I. – They Were Counted

Balint spent the next few days in seeing that he had everything he would need for a winter trip to the mountains. He was fairly well provided, having spent a year in Stockholm where winter sports were beginning to be all the rage, but some things had to be bought. Three days after the Miloths had visited his mother, he caught sight of Adrienne coming out of one of the shops in the main square. Though she was still far away he recognized her at once from her long swinging stride. She was deep in conversation with two young men, Adam Alvinczy and Pityu Kendy, both of whom carried skates slung over their shoulders. In addition Adam carried a picnic basket and another pair of skates while Pityu had a fur rug in one hand and a thermos flask in the other. They were chatting gaily.

For a moment Balint wondered if Adrienne was still angry with him but, even as the thought flashed across his mind, she had stopped in front of him and was holding out her hand: “Here I am!” she said happily, her golden onyx eyes full of light and welcome. It was as if the scene on the bench had never happened.

“We’re going skating. The ice must be wonderful.”

“But it’ll soon be dark!”

“All the better; nobody’ll be there! What’s the matter? Do you think it’s not “done”?”

“Not at all!”

“We’re going to have tea there, on a bench beside the lake. Any nasty suspicions must freeze into nothing at ten below zero, isn’t that so, Adam Adamovitch?” She lifted her aquiline nose at Alvinczy, whose father was also called Adam and who was then engrossed in reading Russian authors. She laughed provocatively.

“What a pity you don’t skate, AB! It’s marvellous!”

“But I do! I learned in Sweden.”

“Come with us then! Do!” said Addy with sudden warmth. “You won’t regret it. … and you’ve never seen me on the ice!”

“All right, but I must go home and get my skates. I’ll join you there.”

Balint walked home as quickly as he could, but it took him some time to find his things and when he had finally discovered where his boots, jerseys, trousers and woollen stockings had been hidden it seemed almost too late to go and join the others. Still a promise was a promise, and she did seem to have forgiven him…

It was dark when Balint arrived at the park. The frozen lake was surrounded by a railing over which hung a few lighted lanterns. He bought his ticket and entered the enclosure. There were only few people there apart from one or two beginners who were practicing with wicker chairs to hold them up, and who did not venture far from the little pavilion, but he could see Adrienne and the two young men gliding about on the far side of the lake. One of them had paid a man with a barrel organ to play to them and he was grinding out an ancient waltz which had once been the rage of Vienna. On it went, the tune endlessly repeating “Nur… für Natur… hegte Sie… Sympathie…”, and to this old melody they waltzed in wide figures of three, leaving behind them faint white furrows cut in the ice.

He should have gone straight over, but instead he stood there watching and thinking how lovely Adrienne was, gliding effortlessly across the ice like a shadow in a dream. She was wearing a dress of brick red which seemed almost black in the half light, the same colour as her hair and the sealskin collar, hat and edging to the hem of the funnel-shaped skirt, which fluttered round her like an ever widening saucer as she turned and twisted in the movements of the dance.

How beautiful she was! She looked weightless and ethereally tall as she danced with both men at once, doing a few turns with one and then, with a double turn, seeming to fly into the arms of the other, spinning arabesques of grace to the rhythm of the old waltz. It was like a ballet with every step lengthened into great sweeps of movement each covering more than thirty feet to a single beat.

As she danced Adrienne seemed more youthful than Balint had ever seen her, her fine elongated silhouette more slender, more alluring, watching her now, passing so lightly from one admirer to another, her lips parted in a dazzling smile of pleasure as each man in turn caught her by the waist and whirled her away with the speed of an eagle taking its prey, Balint knew that he would never again think of Adrienne as the reincarnation of Diana the Huntress who hated men.

In total surrender to the intoxication of the dance, she seemed to be moving in a trance, dazed but ecstatic. This was no virgin goddess performing her hieratic ritual dance; this was a wild young maenad caught in a magic wintery bacchanalia, a prey to every madness of love and abandon, drunk with unrestrained desire and ready for whatever the night might bring. She was the stuff that dreams were made of, impelled by speed, by the rushing strength of her own young body and by the darkness of night in which all desire could be fulfilled and yet remain secret, a nature free of all restraint.

Balint felt like an intruder, a Peeping Tom to whom something forbidden had inadvertently been revealed. This was no longer the Adrienne he knew, neither the moody Addy of his youth nor the bitter Adrienne who escaped from the gaiety of the dance to pour out her disillusion on a moonlight night. Nor was it the playful, childish Adrienne who climbed the haystack with her sisters at Mezo-Varjas, or even the sad woman in flight from the bitterness of a failed marriage who had revealed her soul to him in her father’s garden and then rounded on him in anger and disgust when he dared to kiss her arm. This was a different being, someone he did not know, a stranger, flirtatious, without fear, without regrets and free of the constraints with which he had thought his Adrienne to be inexorably hedged.

Suddenly he felt himself a stranger, an intruder who had no right to be granted this forbidden insight. He had no business to be there unless, perhaps, he was just one more young man she was drawn to seduce!

The music of the barrel-organ stopped abruptly. Adrienne and her two young admirers skated smoothly to the side of the lake where, spreading the fur rug on a bench, they took out their picnic and started to eat. Even from where he stood Balint could see what a good time they were having, how they laughed together and joked and chatted, and how the vapour of hot tea curled up from the open thermos beside them.

“What are you doing here?” he asked himself. “Spying?”

He turned away, left the frozen lake, and walked slowly home.

The very same evening he sent off a telegram: “Arrive beles morning train wednesday. Have sleigh and horses ready at noon.”

Chapter Three

The sleigh bells tinkled merrily as they drove up through the pine forests to the ridge of Csonka-Havas which formed the watershed that had to be crossed before they could reach the little settlement of Beles. Andras Zutor, known as “Honey”, the forest ranger who had come to Kolozsvar, and the coachman, “Clever” Janos Rigo, sat huddled together in the driver’s seat. Both wore jackets made of thick flannel embroidered in patterns of red, blue and green. Over these they had old worn sleeveless sheepskin waistcoats, for no one wore new clothes to go to the mountains in the winter. These too were elaborately embroidered with flowers and traditional Hungarian symbols. Both jackets and waistcoats were short and when their wearers bent forward they showed a line of bare tanned skin between them and the tops of their trousers: all Kalotaszeg folk wore short shirts and jackets, for it was said that they did not feel the cold as other mortals did. Both men were of similar build, stocky and so wide of shoulder that there was only just room for the two of them on the narrow driver’s seat of the sleigh.

As they turned a bend in the road Andras Zutor turned to Balint. “That’s Beles in front of us now”, he said. On the floor of the valley below, Balint could see a huddle of little shingle-roofed huts where the foresters and workers in the sawmill were lodged. From a distance they looked like rows of blackened wooden coffins. Beyond them could be seen the canteen, the houses of the sawmill manager and clerks and, still farther on, the larger roofs of the sawmill itself surrounded by huge piles of uncut tree-trunks, neat mountains of cut planks and heaps of greying sawdust.

The little settlement was ringed with mountains, the Gyalu Boulini side of the Funcinyeli range, and these, shrouded in greyish mist darkened by wisps of smoke rising from the houses and the sawmill, effectively obscured any more distant view.

The noon siren sounded as they drove between the houses. Here the snow had been trodden into mud. All this, explained Andras, was part of the Abady estate. They passed a group of workers, some of whom raised their hats. Once through the settlement the sleigh turned once towards the mountains passing between snow-covered meadows, bare and white between dark plantations of fir trees. Here and there a rock stood out above the snow. As they passed an old willow tree that leaned over the edge of a deep canyon Andras turned again to Balint and explained that this marked the boundary of the Count’s property. Even though the road now started to climb steeply the horses increased their speed knowing that they would soon be home. Behind a fence stood a row of ash trees laden now with bunches of red-brown berries, and behind these again stood the little house of the forest manager. The sleigh turned in through an open gate and drew up before the front door where Kalman Nyiresy, he who had made such a bad impression on Balint when he had come to Denestornya, stood waiting on the steps, pipe in mouth and cap in hand.

“Welcome, your Lordship, welcome!” he cried, taking the meerschaum from his lips and shaking hands heartily. “I must say I never thought you’d really come in the winter! Come in and have a little something to warm the heart after such a long cold ride. And something to eat too! I’m afraid lunch won’t be until two; we never thought you’d get here so soon!”

“I shall not be staying to lunch. I want to arrive before dark so as to set up camp”, replied Balint coldly.

Old Nyiresy was stunned. “You won’t stay? You won’t honour my house? But

I have invited guests to meet your Lordship; two of my best friends, the notary Gaszton Simo from Gyurkuca and the manager of the State forests. They’re fine men both of them, especially Simo who’s of a very good family from Bud-Szent-Katolnay. Why his uncle… If your Lordship’s really set on going up there you could start tomorrow morning.”

Balint made a gesture to indicate that none of that would be possible, and they moved into the combined living and dining-room of the forest manager’s house. In the middle of the room stood a large square oak table of the style known in the eighties as Altdeutsch, and in one corner was a sofa and two armchairs.

They sat down, and in came two young Romanian servant-girls dressed in fine starched linen skirts and cotton blouses, one carrying a tray with glasses and the brandy bottle, the other a plate of biscuits. These they placed on the table, then they made a curtsy to Balint, and said in Romanian: “Poftyic mariasza – at your Lordship’s command!” and left the room winking at Balint as they went.

Without thinking Balint looked up at them.

“Tasty morsels, eh? Look! If your Lordship will stay I’ll send one of them to your bed tonight … or both if you think you can handle them!” The old man chuckled and then added, with a leer: “I sample ‘em myself from time to time!” and he twisted his moustache with a swagger.

Abady replied coldly: “No, I’ll not be staying. I’ll be off just as soon as the horses are ready.”

“Pity! Pity! It’s my loss!” The old man gave a great puff of smoke between each exclamation. He was deeply offended that the oriental welcome he had planned to soften up the unwelcome guest had been spurned.

They sat for a few minutes in hostile silence. Then Balint said stiffly: “Be so good as to give me the estate maps. I want to compare them with the military surveys.”

“No idea where they are!” said the old man gruffly. “I put them away years ago. I’ve got no need of such things, it’s all in here!” He tapped his head and continued to pull on his pipe in proud, offended immobility.

Outside the house the dogs began barking and firm steps could be heard crossing the wooden veranda. The door was flung open and a tall, rawboned man walked in. He was dressed in a short jacket and corduroy riding breeches cut in the fashion that country tailors thought to be English, box-calf boots, and carried a hunting crop. He did not remove his hat, into which were stuck three large boar bristles, but stood in the doorway with extended hand.

“I’m Gaszton Simo!” He spoke proudly as if everyone should tremble at the sound of his name.

Balint disliked him at once. He appeared not to notice the outstretched hand, and spoke condescendingly: “Please be seated, Mr… er… Notary.”

Old Nyiresy was deeply hurt. Although he knew that the house and most things in it belonged to the estate, and that he himself was no more than an employee, his pride had suffered a severe blow from the young count’s refusal to accept him on equal terms and the disdain shown for their efforts to entertain him. He boiled inwardly that this aristocratic brat should lord it over him in his own house, even to playing the host when Nyiresy’s friends appeared. It was too much!

To make up for Balint’s coldness he greeted the newcomer with extra warmth. “How are you, my boy? Come in! Come in! Have a little brandy!” he went on, as he helped the newcomer off with his coat, put hat and whip on the table, and ushered him to an armchair.

“His Lordship won’t be staying for lunch”, he complained. “He’s starting at once for the mountains!”

Simo turned towards Balint enquiringly. What a bandit, thought Balint, now that he could see his face properly. Why, he looks like a medieval mercenary who would go anywhere, serve no matter who, kill anyone, so long as he was properly paid. Gaszton Simo had a hard, resolute face under short hair which grew so low on his forehead that it almost touched his thick black brows. He had small shrewd button-like eyes, and thick black moustaches which joined equally thick black whiskers. He looked both forceful and cunning.

“Madness, going up there in the winter!” growled old Nyiresy. However Simo did not back him up as he had hoped.

“Why not? The weather’s beautiful now, even if the nights are cold. This time last year I went shooting with my uncle, the Chamberlain. We went to the foot of the Humpleu and camped on the Prislop. Wonderful weather we had!” He turned to Balint. “Have you got everything you need, sleeping bags, fur rugs, watertight tent, kettles…? If you need anything I’d be glad to lend it. If you like I could go with you and take care of everything.”

This did not fit in with Balint’s plans.

“Thank you, I have all I need. The horses are being loaded up now.”

“When do you return? I’ll have a roe-buck for you.” “A roe-buck? In February?”

“There’re no restrictions in the mountains”, laughed Simo scornfully. “It’s better if

I order it shot than let it be taken by some common poacher. I just have to say the word!”

Balint was too outraged to reply at once and just as he was about to speak Andras Zutor came in. He clicked his heels to Abady and announced that the horses were ready whenever his Lordship wished to leave.

Balint got up at once and went out. He shook hands on the veranda with Nyiresy, and this time also with Gaszton Simo. Then he ordered Janos Rigo, who was waiting at the foot of the steps, to have the sleigh ready for him in three days’ time at Szkrind in the Retyicel Valley as he would not return to Hunyad the way he came but planned to return by way of Mereggyo.

The old forest manager muttered something into his beard but said nothing more to retain the young man who had made so light of the welcome he had planned for him.

In front of the house, standing about in the snow, were eight horses of which three were saddled: two, for Balint and Andras Zutor, with wooden Hungarian saddles covered with sheepskins, while the third, a much more impressive animal, had a military saddle and well-oiled bridle and reins. This was the notary’s horse, a fine dapple-grey, sleek and well cared-for. All the others were skinny mountain ponies with shaggy winter coats.

In the centre of the group stood Honey, who had discarded the old hat he had been wearing and replaced it with a splendid affair of sheepskin which he wore only on special occasions. Slung round his shoulders was a Werndl sporting gun and at his side he carried a bulging knapsack on which was displayed a brass plaque engraved with the Abady arms, the symbol of his official status as a Foleskudt man, someone who had taken the oath of loyalty and was therefore respected as an officer of the State. With his reddish beard trimmed like the monarch’s, erect stance and commanding glance, he had the air and presence of a sergeant-major, and was accorded the same respect.

Around him stood the five gyorniks – forest guards – who had been summoned by Andras Zutor. These were Todor Paven, a tall Albanian who had charge of the Intreape forest; Krisan Gyorgye, a big man with a black moustache and huge hands from Toszerat; the overweight Juanye Vomului, who, with new clothes, a vast sheepskin hat and a copper-studded belt with copious pockets, and who was not an Abady employee but was an independent smallholder from Gyurkuca and liked to underline his special status by the elegance of his appearance; Vaszi Lung from Valea Gorbului, known as Zsukuczo or “Tipstaff” because as a young man he had been the bailiff’s runner. He was a small elderly man, blond and chubby with inflamed red eyes who, from having once been a noted poacher was now such an efficient keeper that no one dared set traps or wander with a gun in his part of the forest. Lastly, there was Stefan Lung from Vale Szaka, the youngest of the band, tall and slim, who had inherited his job from his father. Young Stefan was no relation to Vaszi; they bore the same name simply because nearly all the families of the Retyicel district were descended from two brothers who had settled there a hundred and fifty years before. All five guards carried a long-handled axe and knapsacks bearing brass plaques with the Abady arms as symbols of their authority in their respective districts.

Abady mounted swiftly and, as Zutor was adjusting his stirrups, Gaszton Simo, who had been whispering something to old Nyiresy, came up and asked if he could ride some of the way with him.

“I thought that you were going to have lunch with Nyiresy?” said Balint, who was not at all eager for the notary’s company.

“I’ll be back in time. I would like to ask the Count’s opinion on something… something political, nothing to do with the estate.” As Balint hesitated, he jumped on his horse and was soon riding beside him.

The little caravan got underway with Andras Zutor in the lead, sitting sideways as if kneeling in the saddle but still in full control of his mount. In the rear came the gyorniks in single file with the pack animals; and in between rode Balint and the notary.

When they had ridden only about a hundred paces Simo began to talk about the recent elections. Who would have thought that things would have turned out like this with the old ruling party now in the minority? How could it have happened? What would happen next? How would it affect the 1867 Compromise? What did the monarch think? Who would be the next prime minister? With all these questions he was trying to show this little aristocrat who played at politics that he too, Gaszton Simo, was no simple ink-licking notary from the backwoods but an informed man-of-the-world who deserved proper consideration. With each query he looked at Balint, hoping for an answer. The latter was silent for some time, and finally said: “It’s really too early to say definitely, but maybe the only constitutional solution will be a coalition.”

“Hm!” said Simo. “A coalition? Could that possibly work?” He did not speak for a few moments and seemed worried. Then he went on talking in roundabout terms about how those loyal to the King had had to stand up to the machinations of revolutionary demagogues and finally arrived at what Balint realized was the purpose of this whole conversation. Perhaps, hinted Simo, the new party in power might now seek vengeance on those who had been loyal to the previous government? Did his Lordship believe that those who had given good service to the State in recent years might now find themselves in trouble? It was clear to Balint that the notary was scared that his own skin might be in danger. Reassuringly he said:

“You have nothing to fear, Mr Notary. State legal officers are elected by the community and can only be displaced as a result of disciplinary action.”

“Yes, yes, of course I know that, but…” He looked around him as if to be sure that no one would overhear, then: “Look, sir, between men of the world, between gentlemen, I don’t need to hide the truth. The fact is I fixed the last elections in Hunyad. The government candidate won by nine votes, and that was only because I myself had brought in all the voters from here, all thirty-seven of them. Well, now I hear that some people are saying that the election was rigged and that twenty of those I brought were never on the electoral roll. The rascals! Someone’s already been up to spy around. Of course I threw him out.”

“What really did happen?”

The notary, thinking his explanation had been convincing enough, began to bluster: “Well, the district judge is a good friend of mine. It was he who asked me to bring everyone. There are many bad people here; they hate me because

I keep strict order, don’t let them get away with anything! Also I’m the only real Hungarian here, in this little outpost. Let them grumble, I’m not afraid! But if we had a new county prefect, named by the government, then perhaps they’d think they could testify against me. False witness, of course, false witness!” He struck the pommel of his saddle to emphasize his point.

There was no need for Balint to reply at once as the road just then descended to a small river and the riders were obliged to go in single file, the sure-footed little ponies wading through the swift running water carefully testing each step for sharp or dangerous stones. When they had made the crossing successfully Simo again advanced to Balint’s side.

“I have something else to request of your Lordship. The church at Gyurkuca is very small and ought to be enlarged. Only a small quantity of timber would do the job and it would create an excellent impression if it were to be donated by your Lordship. May I send them word?”

Balint said that he would look into the matter.

“I can vouch for the district popa, a most trustworthy man. His son is actively pro-Romanian, but it doesn’t matter as he is dying of tuberculosis. But the priest is a good man, reliable; he always lets me know what is going on up there! I help him, of course, and try to keep the son out of trouble with the authorities. So can I tell them they can have the wood?”

“I can’t decide now. I’ll look into it when I get there.”

“But I’m vouching for him. I, Gaszton Simo!” The notary was incensed not to have his word accepted at once.

“I’ll think about it”, said Abady. “And now, if you don’t mind, I would like you to return to Beles. I have things to discuss with the rangers. Good-day to you, Mr Notary!” Balint raised his hat and spurred his horse on ahead to catch up with Zutor.

Simo looked after him, his expression full of hate. “Damned stuck-up aristocrat!” he said to himself and turning his horse abruptly he started to gallop back the way they had come. Blind with rage he nearly ran down the foresters leading the pack-horses.

Now they started to leave the valley and climb up to the high mountains. Here and there they passed log cabins surrounded by wooden fences. Dogs ran out and barked, but kept their distance as there were too many people for them to attack with safety. Krisan Gyorgye, in his self-appointed role as the young master’s bodyguard, ran towards them cursing, while the other porters and the men and women of the settlement giggled with amusement.

The valley they rode through was filled with a light mist, a bluish vapour that softened the outlines of everything around them while nevertheless holding a sparkling quality which hinted that the sun above was shining brightly. Almost before Balint was aware, the mist was blown away by the mountain breezes and the little party emerged on to a high ridge from which they could see an endless panorama of mountains and forests stretching into the far distance.

They stopped. There was not a cloud in the sky which arched above them like an ice-blue celestial dome. The mountain ranges in front receded in ever paler shades of cobalt, darkening only in the intervening valleys. On their left the bright sunlight etched the outlines of ridge after ridge of dense forest. As Balint took out his maps, Andras showed him the landmarks in front of them.

“There, on the right, is the Gyalu Boulini! The Szamos river curves round the base of the mountain. That sandy hill there marks the start of the foothills of the Humpleu, but we can’t see the summit from here, it’s too far away. Our boundary lies on the top of that mountain ridge – there! – and then descends to the river. Beyond lie the Church lands, there, on the fourth ridge, is the Intreapa. The boundary follows that bend, rises to the left and then rises again to the summit. That’s the third side. His Lordship’s Valko forest meets the State lands at the Pietra Talharalui, those high cliffs there.” He pointed at three rocks rising like giants’ tombstones on the horizon.

Far in the distance, about four or five miles away beyond the deep valley of the Szamos river which was shrouded in wisps of low cloud, Balint could just make out some faint black specks on the snow-covered mountainside and, behind them, a patch of grey that seemed to have a toothpick planted upright beside it.

“Is that the church of Gyurkuca? Perhaps we could pass that way tomorrow? I’d like to see it.”

“As your Lordship wishes.”

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