The first time I had the honour to meet the late Count Pázmány, I lent him my last 20 korona to pay for a bottle of champagne. He said he needed it, and a cursory appreciation of his somewhat frayed appearance confirmed the truth of this entreaty. The Count was good enough to drink my health and to share a glass with me. From that moment, we became firm friends.
I say my last 20 korona, but those of you acquainted with the sad history of my family will no doubt be aware that I had by this time squandered every fillér of my not inconsequential inheritance at the gaming tables, and on women, and, to a lesser extent, on competition poultry. The previous day I had given a gypsy pedlar 200 korona for a batch of geese I felt were sure to sweep all before them at next week’s harvest festival; only to be bitterly disabused by my steward, Tóth, who pointed out that the whole gaggle were one-legged, a defect the wily pedlar had concealed by displaying them side on. In my defence, even Tóth admitted that they looked magnificent in profile.
The truth is that these last 20 korona were a loan from Tóth. He asked me to think of the money as a gift, and, with typical impertinence, suggested that I wasn’t to dream of paying it back. Such a reversal of the natural order of things being, if you will forgive the paradox, in those days all too common. The spirit of the age was one of angry and somewhat pathetic confusion, like an old man who awakens from a troubled sleep to find himself stark naked in the middle of the forest, with no memory of who he is, apart from a strong sense of having once amounted to something. Like, in fact, my uncle, the Count Bánffy, who was very lucky to be picked up and brought home by a party of Austrian tourists before things got out of hand.
I had taken myself off to the village tavern; partly, I confess, to dull the humiliation of finding myself once more in Tóth’s debt. It was frequently my custom to spend the evenings here, rather than dining at home, or in the company of what might be regarded as my social equals. I revelled in the atmosphere: the saltiness of my tenants’ conversation being a welcome antidote to the sterilised and mutually reinforcing anxiety that passed for table-talk in good houses at that time. I will have been enjoying one of these robust colloquies when the late Count Pázmány leant across, and introduced himself, enquiring, with the natural grace and musicality of diction which marked him from the beginning as a man of the noblest disposition, from where I had purchased that handsome necktie of mine, and whether he might touch me for a few korona.
This was, of course, a part of the world in which most of us were counts, except for my cousin the Prince Károlyi, who was a prince, and the Baron Berthóthy, who was a baron. I remember when we were younger how we used to delight in holding Berthóthy upside down and asking him, ‘What are you?’, ‘What are you?’, and he would cry, ‘Just a baron; I’m only a baron’, and we would let him go, and share a good laugh.
I remind you of this because I wish to be quite clear that I did not regard it as an honour to meet a man of Pázmány’s rank. Indeed, such was my familiarity with the local nobility, I owned to being somewhat surprised I had not encountered the name before. This was until he explained his family holdings were in Transylvania, at which I joked that I hoped he wasn’t going to bleed me dry, and he pointed out that this was just the sort of quip that had dogged him his entire adult life, even when fighting side by side with his fellow Hungarians, risking his life no less than they were. He hated the Romanians as much as the next Magyar. He found these jokes not offensive, so much as wearying. I agreed this was a jolly good point.
No, the honour conferred by his acquaintance was due to the character of the man, which struck you from the moment of introduction. I mentioned earlier that he did not appear to me in his prime. His long black hair was very obviously dyed, and beginning to thin at the crown, while his mustard corduroy suit had apparently fusted so long unwashed that it seemed to have evolved a separate consciousness, glorying in the offence it gave, and threatening with its powerful odour and ominous rents to cheat at cards and sully your sister: a well-educated thug of a piece of tailoring. Nevertheless, I knew in an instant, here was a man of some standing. Not in that narrow temporal sense with which popular sentiment is so often willing to pronounce itself satisfied. Here was a man indifferent to the tyranny of context. A Socrates. A Beethoven. A Savonarola. His enormous twice-broken nose, a sign of having run up against the world, and not having known when he was beaten.
This much was confirmed to me by our conversation. For Count Pázmány had suffered with our age, even as he superseded it. He had served, he told me, on both the Eastern and when this grew tiresome, on the Western Front. He had lived both as coward and as hero, and observed that the poet was quite wrong when he said cowards die a thousand times, and the valiant but once; the valiant, he said, die each of the thousand deaths they imagine, but continue to fight: this is what makes them valiant.
He had flown alongside the Red Baron. He had tried to help the Ottomans push back against that dreadful Lawrence fellow; if only Brother Turk had listened to him. He had composed a long, dense poem, full of biblical imagery and recondite references, which addressed the problems of our time at once obliquely and head on. He had ridden a winner in the Grand National at Aintree. He had invented an unguent which could assuage both shell shock and ennui. He had attempted to negotiate the peaceful annexation of the Croats. In spite of all this, the Soviets had confiscated his property and driven him from his home. Modesty could not forbid repetition of the Cardinal Archbishop of Esztergom’s observation that Pázmány’s experience of exile, state-craft, and penury, taken with his distinctive personal bravery, reminded His Eminence of another man with big ideas and long hair. The Count himself was hardly so impious as to venture the comparison.
Hearing these stories, and discovering that the Count had not yet made arrangements for his overnight stay, aside from a vague intention to ask the inn-keeper if he had any room, I did not hesitate to put my own modest castle at his disposal.
It was not long into the Count’s sojourn that he began to take the administration of my estate into his own hands.
The first I knew of Tóth’s dismissal was when the old steward informed me of it one morning. Was I aware that the Count Pázmány had instructed Tóth to collect his belongings and have left the castle by nightfall? Candidly, I had never cared for Tóth: his preference for my father and disapproval of my own lifestyle were all too obvious. Nevertheless, the Tóths had been with my family for generations, and, whatever you said about the man, he had served us loyally; moreover, he knew the estates better than anyone else alive, myself included. I would even say that I preferred him to Mrs Svabó, the housekeeper I had also inherited, and whose lisp unsettled me.
I wondered if this was not a little overhasty on Pázmány’s part, and asked him as much. He answered my question with one of his own. Was I to govern my own affairs or not? And then, being a man of restless intellect, with another. Was I to be master in my own house, or was I to allow myself to be ordered around by a beastly little Croat leech who displayed scant regard for my name and ancient heritage?
At Pázmány’s suggestion I remained in my study reading detective novels while he oversaw the steward’s tearful departure. Such weakness in a man was disgraceful, Pázmány observed, one ought only to weep at the death of a comrade, or the sense of one’s own insignificance when faced by the infinite magnitude and detail of our universe. I agreed.
The changes Pázmány made to my estate were considerable. He began by converting the majority of the grounds to the production of champagne. After a lean spell, he firmly believed the continent was in line for some biblical years of plenty; except, this time, in a different order. We were living through an age of unprecedented new technologies; the possibilities for human happiness were without limit, and in such promising circumstances, a man producing sparkling wine was set to clean up. Besides, he was convinced we could market the vineyards as an alternative sanatorium. Sleeping amongst the fumes, he confided, ‘would help to make us all more intelligent’.
These reforms were expensive, and I was already a bankrupt, albeit a happy one. In spite of another loan from Tóth, I was forced to mortgage the estate to a Slovak merchant named Chren. I did not think much of Chren, on account of a lazy eye that I felt belied its name by following you around the room. However, having read through the paperwork, Pázmány assured me that in spite of being a crazy-eyed Slovak scum, Chren offered excellent terms on which I’d be a damned fool to pass.
My own living quarters were unfortunately required for the vats, so while Pázmány oversaw the renovations, I temporarily boarded with Tóth. Pázmány had counselled that for his own good the steward ought to vacate the lodge gifted to him by my father – how would the poor fellow accustom himself to his new life otherwise? – and Tóth had moved into his sister’s cottage near the village.
Tóth’s spinster sister was not to my tastes. The reason she had never managed to find a husband was indubitably her insistence on only ever cooking a gross approximation of gulyás which somehow, no matter the distance of space or time covered between pot and table, conspired always to be cold. The old crone took a shine to me, and clearly fancying herself a countess, spent her evenings making ghastly cooing noises and casting glances of quite chilling covetousness in my direction. Christ, the witch could barely speak. I took to slipping out at the earliest possible opportunity, leaving her gumming maniacally to herself.
It happened that, though I would gladly have escaped to anywhere Tóth’s sister wasn’t, I often ended up at the boundary of the castle grounds, gazing towards my home. Here, through the windows’ twilit glow, I could see the happy silhouettes of Pázmány, together with Chren and other associates, conscientiously researching our product until the early hours.
‘I wonder,’ I asked Tóth late one night as I settled into the small bed in which we topped and tailed, ‘do you think his grace the Count Pázmány really has met Charlie Chaplin?’
‘As on all matters, I trust your highness’s judgement,’ he deferred gently to my foot.
‘You’re quite right, Tóth. I’m sure he has.’
Making my crepuscular Odyssey one evening in the spring of that year, I was surprised to find the castle quiet. The lamps still burnt dimly, but other than that there appeared no sign of life.
Pázmány had requested I not return until the renovations were complete. ‘You will feel the castle’s currently divested state too upsetting, brother,’ he said, citing the profound distress caused to my young mind by the shock of seeing my grandmother, the Dowager Countess, sans wig and porcelain teeth; a painful and formative experience I had often happened to recollect in his sympathetic presence. Nevertheless, the silence spooked me. This marked absence of the strains of a gypsy fiddle and energetic wassail did not bode well. I decided to risk the Count’s displeasure by approaching the castle.
The great front doors were unlocked. In those days, family, tenants and neighbours were welcome to come and go as they pleased, so this would hardly have been unexpected, had Pázmány not, quite sensibly, insisted on increased security, given the dirty tricks to which he assured me our competitors were likely to stoop. Although all around me I noticed the evidence of recent occupation – empty bottle; smashed balalaika – the air remained undisturbed by even the laboured breathing of a sleeping drunk.
I found a note pinned to the rather gloomy portrait of my late paternal grandfather which hung at the summit of the central staircase. It was addressed to me –
Dear Count —,
Apparently, you are only legally permitted to refer to sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region as ‘champagne’. This has bitched up the business plan.
I have decided in the circumstances it seems best to relocate. Bottom is dropping out of sparkling wine, anyway, due mainly to stock market, etc. Have some other projects in mind. Will send forwarding address for my effects once said address is confirmed.
PS. Chren says the mortgage is now due in full! When sorrows come, etc.
PPS. Chren isn’t a Slovak at all, it turns out, but as Magyar as the nose on my face. Passes as a Slovak for business purposes. Search me. I suspect the thing with the eye is also put on.
I heard the great doors close behind me, and a man cough.
‘Thank goodness, Pázmány, you had me going for a second ther-.’
But it was only Tóth. ‘What the devil are you doing here, you old fool?’ I asked. I confess that my accustomed composure felt somewhat rocked.
‘I noticed his Grace, the Count Pázmány, leaving town in a coach some hours ago, sir.’
Tóth began to climb the stairs. Listless, I handed him the note. He read it in silence.
‘Perhaps I should pour your highness a pálinka, and help you to bed? Everything else can wait till the morning. I’m sure we’ll think of something.’
‘Yes, thank you Tóth. I am a little tired, now you come to mention it.’
I do not know what became of the Count Pázmány. I have always assumed he met his death during the next war, beneath the unfriendly clouds of some distant foreign sky. But with typical style, of course. It will have been a great loss.