When war broke out I volunteered as a second-line reservist in the 51st regiment, the one with the grey collar-tabs. I didn’t get a volunteer stripe, but nevertheless I did very well. My depot was in Kolozsvár. I was born there and knew half the town. I was a journalist. I went practically straight from the office to the regiment. My sergeant-major called me ‘Mr Editor.’ My military duties simply consisted of getting into uniform twice a week and reporting at the unit for the sake of appearances. Otherwise life took its normal course. I went about in civvies. And I watched from the café window the companies marching to the station on their way to the front.
I’m not saying all this in order to boast. The older I become, the more ashamed I am that I evaded my own duty to suffer when everybody was suffering. But it’s important for the reader to know what an irresponsible little devil I was, and to what extent I was not a real soldier on that summer Sunday afternoon when my story begins.
At that moment, however, I did look very much like a soldier. I was wearing a standard ill-fitting issue uniform. Polished black boots, tight blue trousers. At my waist a belt with the two-headed eagle on the brass buckle. I’d just left the barracks after coming off parade. I meant to go home to my flat to change into civvies and go out to the theatre, where I was at the time courting the understudy to the female lead.
As I say, it was a Sunday afternoon. The street was festively decorated with serving girls out for a walk. Kolozsvár is a rich collector of streams of various races. And the little groups of Székely, Romanian and Magyar girls, going arm in arm, gave the crowds of servants the multicoloured appearance of a peacock’s tail. Every village had its costume, its hair-colour, its style, temperament, ribbon, skirt, kerchief. How the pasty, eager little faces gleamed. They had to hurry, as this was the ephemeral happiness of a single afternoon.
Several of the girls looked me invitingly in the eye, laughed at me, indeed spoke to me. Well, why not? I was 22, and in my ill-fitting issue uniform and hobnailed boots I must have looked just like any peasant lad from the Szilágyság or Hunyad county. I enjoyed it, I felt like a prince in disguise. I winked back at the girls, tugged their plaits. I behaved just as a private soldier on the lookout for a bit of Sunday fun should do. I was trodden on, jostled, pinched. The widely rolling stream of gaiety carried me off on its waves.
Suddenly the movement of the crowd swept me up against a tall girl from Kalotaszeg. We collided. I looked at her. She was gorgeous. Neat as a new pin. Slender.
I took her arm.
“Where are you going?”
“Looking for a lover for myself,” she replied pertly.
I drew her to me.
“Then let’s stay together, if that’s all right with you, ’cause that’s just what I’m doing.”
At that she looked at me. Properly, seriously, sincerely, thoroughly, as if I’d been a chicken or a cabbage that she was thinking of buying in the market. Then she nodded.
“I don’t mind. We can go together.”
I was suffused with pride. Something warm moved very deep within me. This was something that had gone on for a million years. It seemed that something inside me was responding, exploding into sparks at a point of electric contact. I felt perfect triumph, desire, gentleness, devotion. And I knew that the girl was just the same as myself. Without a word we went solemnly through the jostling crowd. Fire shot through my hand as I took her sinewy arm so that she should not be swept away from me.
She was a really beautiful girl. Chestnut hair, grey eyes. It seemed that the delicate light brown skin on her full features was tight, so did her nose, her mouth and chin stand out. I almost felt that she would have difficulty in closing her eyes, such were the flexible, opposing little muscles everywhere beneath her cool skin.
In addressing her I had called her ‘te.’ But after walking for two minutes I went over to the more refined and intimate ‘maga.’ And I saw to my surprise that this young peasant girl with the serene forehead appreciated this touch. She too abandoned the pert tone and enquired with warm immediacy where I was from. Kolozsvár?
I said that I was a conscript from Szilágy county. I quickly invented the name of a place—I was from Pokozd.
“You’re from Kalotaszeg, I see,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Vilma Jakáb. And yours?”
“Sándor Nagy,” I lied again, because I felt certain that this girl would leave me, would be cross and run off, if I told her that I was not of her class.
As we walked I learnt that she was in service with some official who lived on Bocskai tér. Her employer was a decent man. But she wasn’t really used to her position yet, having only come to Kolozsvár from her village a fortnight ago.
“I’ve got until eight,” she said, “then I’ve got to go home. Because the master and his family will be having dinner. Though they could do that without me. It’s a cold meal. Knackwurst.”
That Sunday parade had a course as definitively laid down as the tracks of ants on the ground. The multicoloured stream flowed along Honvéd utca, down the right-hand side of the Főtér, up Unió utca, turned into Miklós Barta utca and down to the Szamos, and finally along the right of the promenade. The path on the right was crowded, deep in dust, all noise and bustle under the ancient trees. The other side, however, was completely deserted. Scarcely a couple of people were idling in the shade of the bushes. I thought that this was something to do with fashion, and so I said to the girl:
“Let’s cross over there. Why let ourselves be pushed around in this mob?”
She looked at me in surprise.
“Don’t you know, Sándor, that we aren’t allowed over there? The police would send us back. That path’s reserved for the gentry.”
Well, of course I didn’t know. How would a trousered loafer like me have known the extent of the stupidity and insolence of the police? The blood rushed to my head. Involuntarily I said, just in an undertone, addressing nobody:
“I’ll do a piece about that. That’s swinish behaviour.”
“You’ll what?” asked the girl in alarm.
I avoided a straight answer.
“To hell with them. What swinishness, if you can’t go freely where you like. Perhaps those people over there are somehow better than us two?”
The girl had no inclination whatever towards socialism. She shrugged.
“I don’t know why you’re getting so upset. If you like, we can go down where there aren’t so many people.”
But I was fully incensed. Suddenly I also realised that I wouldn’t even be able to take her into the kiosk. The waiters would throw us out, because it wasn’t the sort of place where common soldiery and serving girls were welcome. What cheek! Suddenly I tingled with resentment at those arrogant regulations which were imposed for the sake of people like me.
There was a little funfair on the promenade. For lack of anything better we went there. We went on the swings. We measured ourselves. We looked at the tattooed woman. We slapped the slapping-machine. I paid. Changed a five forint note.
The girl looked at me.
“Where d’you get money like that from?”
“My father’s a rich farmer,” I kept up the lies, “we’ve even got a share in a threshing-machine. Five forints to him is like a bean to anybody else.”
The girl wasn’t happy about it.
“We’ve got land as well, and a house. But my father would wring my brother’s neck if he squandered that much money …”
I’d completely forgotten the theatre and the actress. I even forgot my civilian status. All I wanted was for the village in the Szilágyság to become my real background. For me really to be a peasant conscript who, that Sunday afternoon, had found his true partner for life in that pure, beautiful, innocent young girl.
The afternoon passed as sweetly as honey. There was only one awkward moment. A pockmarked, bowlegged elderly hussar corporal tried to take the girl off me. First he loitered around us like a dog on the rut. Then he picked an argument with me on some pretext. I hadn’t saluted him correctly. He stopped me and began to tick me off rudely in front of her. He had the right, he was a corporal. I endured his insolence, turning pale. But the desire grew in my right hand to draw my bayonet and stick it into the chest of that tobacco-smelling, yellow toothed, loathsome peasant, who was on a level with a rat.
The tension between us was becoming more and more dangerous. The eyes of both of us flashed a message different from our words. I don’t know what would have happened if the girl hadn’t stepped between us and with lethal calm put her arm through mine and turned to the NCO with a polite but firm request.
“I know why you’re bothering this young man, corporal. So please don’t. You wouldn’t be able to split us up in any case. We’re from the same village.” And she squeezed my arm with hers.
The corporal stood in front of us for a few moments more and glared at us as if considering whether it was worth risking a scene. Then, perhaps because some humanity had arisen in him, perhaps because he saw in our determined faces that he had little to hope for, he tucked his sword under his arm, turned away and clattered off in search of other prey, pouring out his spleen upon us in a single sentence:
“To hell with you and your village.”
When the trouble was past we walked on side by side in silence for a while. Only after a long interval did the girl speak. Sensibly, warmly, gently she said:
“You see, Sándor, that’s why you ought to get yourself promoted. Because if you only had a star that corporal wouldn’t have been so rude to you. Because the only ones that people dare to insult are those who have nothing in the world, but if somebody has nothing more than a fork of hay they’ll excuse one thing and another because they think what if one day they’re forced to want that hay …”
It had happened at other times too that my girlfriends had tried to urge me to ambition. Then I had always heatedly rejected such attempts. But in this girl’s gesture there was such unselfishness, such experience and wisdom in her voice, that I would have loved to kiss her hand.
We put our arms round one another’s waists. Soldier and serving girl, we strolled thus in silence in the dwindling crowd until darkness began to fall.
When the church towers rang half past seven and she began to think that the time to go home was approaching, I said with perfect sincerity:
“I’ll be sorry to say good-bye, Vilma.”
She considered for a moment, then turned to me.
“We don’t have to say good-bye. You can come to my place. Wait while I serve dinner. Then stay with me. But only come if you can stay out of barracks until morning. Because I don’t want the caretaker opening the door for you in the night and wondering whom you’ve been with in the house.”
That was straight talking. An plain offer of a night of love. But how free of frivolity it had been made. Seriously, without beating about the bush. It was a human act. As much a part of life as breathing.
“Thank you very much,” I said quietly, gratefully. “Of course I can stay out, the sergeant’s a friend of mine.”
And we set off without another word for Bocskai tér.
On the way she told me that her employer’s name was Ferenc Bodrogi, and he worked in some office, she didn’t know where. He had a wife and a son and daughter. The son was at present away in the army. They lived at number four on the third floor.
At this revelation I was at first taken aback, and then almost began to laugh. I knew that family very well. Bodrogi was an engineer with the Natural Gas Company. I had courted his daughter. I’d been to school with his son. I’d often been in their home. And it was strange as we turned in through the familiar doorway. And strange that we went up by the narrow, dark, back stairs, where there was only a little gas flame alight on the second landing.
When we had reached the third floor landing the girl took the key from her skirt pocket and opened the kitchen door. That kitchen too I knew well. I’d knocked there more than once when the front door bell had been out of order. At that time the Bodrogis had had a little Romanian maid. She too had been pretty, and I had pinched her chin.
Now the girl put on the electric light. She took off her kerchief. I was standing there on the doorstep and made to go in after her.
“Wait out there on the landing, Sándor, until the family go out or go to bed. Somebody might come into the kitchen. Why let them see you? They might take it amiss.”
‘They would too’, I thought, and went out onto the narrow landing. It was dark by that time. Lamps were shining all around in the windows of the big apartment house and in the doors that led to corridors. Somewhere a girl was singing. Shapes moved in the well-lit kitchens. Another soldier, presumably on the same errand as myself, was idling on the first floor landing, leaning on the iron railing.
It was summer. A warm evening. ‘There’s a nasty smell in city courtyards at times like this,’ I decided as I sat down on the dustbin out there on the landing, next to a cold iron and a sack of charcoal.
Inside Vilma was busy. She set out the plates and cutlery, sliced bread. Put a clean napkin in the bread basket. Skinned five links of knackwurst. Cut an onion into rings. She took the cherry millefeuille that was left over from lunch off the kitchen sideboard and called out through the open door onto the landing:
“Care for a bit of millefeuille, Sándor?”
I would have, but Vilma could no longer bring it out, because in the doorway leading from the flat there appeared the young lady of the house. There had been a time when I liked that little Piri. Especially her skin and hair. Now I didn’t care for her face. It was too hard. I didn’t like the way she failed to return Vilma’s pleasant ‘good evening.’ I looked on in hostile fashion from the landing as she went up to the kitchen table with her bored expression and with two fingers picked out a cherry from the millefeuille. It made my blood boil that she should talk down like that to my Vilma, as if she were a slave.
“Bring dinner in at once, Vilma. We’re going to the cinema. Then when we’ve gone clear the table, make the beds, and you too may go to bed, there’ll be nothing else today, just don’t forget to wake me at seven in the morning and clean my tennis shoes.”
When the young lady had floated back into the flat Vilma looked out onto the landing:
“Pretty girl, don’t you think? Her name’s Piri.”
Now there came an impatient ring from inside. Vilma picked up the plate of knackwurst and onion and took it in. The kitchen was left deserted. I knew where she was, on what kind of territory. I knew the rooms, the dining room. The furniture. The dining-table, the sofa, the clock and the pictures on the wall.
Vilma went to and fro between the kitchen and the flat. The bell rang for water, for salt. The tap gurgled. Finally dinner was over in there. She came out and shook crumbs from the tablecloth on the landing. Then I saw Piri once more. This time she was wearing her hat and coat. She gave out the coffee and sugar for breakfast. Again no greeting, and she left.
The front door closed with a bang. And I saw the family going down the stairs.
Now Vilma called me in.
“Go into my room, while I tidy up the kitchen.”
This ‘my room’ was a minute cubby-hole. Windowless. More of an alcove. There was scarcely room for a little iron bed and a chair, on which stood a tin washbasin. Two nails had been knocked into the wall, and on them hung her multicoloured skirts and cheap blouses. And at the head of the bed was a little wooden box, painted green, the sort that peasant lads take with them when they’re called up. On this box stood a little Catholic prayer book with a clasp. The book was full of lace-edged pictures of saints. Madonnas in cornflower blue, waxen Christs with purple blood running down their foreheads from the crowns of thorns.
I sat down on the bed. I kept quiet and watched her bustling about in the kitchen. Outside in the courtyard there had been a nauseating, nasty, summer smell. In the windowless little room, however, it seemed that I could detect the light scent of village soil. The smell of a peasant room with an earth floor. Perhaps that wasn’t imagination either: her clothes had brought that distant perfume with them.
Impatiently I began to call:
“Coming,” she replied, “I’ll just wash my hands, I’ve been doing onions.” And she went to the sink and began to wash her hands carefully with a lump of ordinary washing soap.
Then, at last, she came into the little cubby-hole.
“Get up, let me make the bed.”
I got up, put my arms round her waist and drew her to me … Well, I’ve had a lot to do with women before and since, but never in all my life have I experienced such purity and dramatic power in an embrace. My strength was as nothing compared to the way that girl put her muscular arms round my neck. She took my head in her hands and looked into my face.
Quietly she said:
“You can thank your eyes for your being here. They were what struck me when you spoke to me …”
Well, that adventure certainly turned into a steady relationship. We met on three Sundays and an intervening public holiday. One after another. And on all four occasions I put on military uniform. I was acting the peasant lad. Or rather, I wasn’t acting. I was behaving quite naturally, enjoying myself. All I had to do was avoid topics that might have aroused her suspicion. Otherwise, our talk was much more interesting than normal conversation. And that came not from my inventiveness but from her wealth of sensitivity, her perfect sincerity, and the highly expressive power of her colourful tongue.
On the fifth Sunday afternoon I didn’t go to our regular meeting-place, outside Hintz the chemist at the corner of Főtér. Why, I forget—perhaps I was busy or had overslept. At all events, I didn’t go. That day I stayed in civvies. And towards seven that evening I happened by chance to go near the chemist’s.
Vilma was still standing there, hidden in the depth of the gateway. Kerchief on her head, she was standing motionless, waiting. It was easy to see from the way she looked that she’d been hanging about for hours. Her face was serious, pained. She stood and stood, looking out from the gateway into the rain. Because it was raining, and getting dark too by that time. So she didn’t recognise me like that, wearing my raincoat. She didn’t even look at me particularly. She was expecting someone else, a young soldier in a blue mantlet and boots, with a belt round his waist.
As I passed the gateway my heart pounded. Then I was afraid to show myself to her dressed as a gentleman. And I was not alone. I was arm-in-arm with a fellow journalist. We were talking about the war, clinging together under our single umbrella. We hurried past in the rain.
Then, when we’d gone some distance, three streets away, a lump came into my throat. I thought of Kipling’s native Indian girl who waited 40 years at the crossroads for the faithless English soldier. I rushed back to the chemist’s. She was no longer standing under the gateway. Poor girl, she couldn’t have gone long before. Of course, it was half past seven, she had to be in to lay the table and serve dinner.
I cursed myself. There was pain in my heart. I loved that girl.
Then next Sunday everything was back in order. We met. I lied that I’d been confined to barracks. We walked, took a boat on the lake by the promenade, threw bits of bread to the swans. And again spent the night together in the little cubby-hole, lying in each other’s arms on the narrow iron bed, in the earth-scented darkness. She laid her head on my chest and whispered:
“How long shall we be like this? All of a sudden you’ll be in grey. And I shall see you in your shako with a flower in it, marching off to the station … And I shall throw myself into the Szamos then …”
I came close to giving myself away. All it would have taken was to switch on the light. To hold out my hand. ‘Look how soft my hands are. Open your eyes. Do peasant lads have hands like these?’
But I lacked the courage to speak. I was afraid of upsetting her. Because I felt that she would not take what had happened as a mere piece of fun. I knew, however, that the truth had to come out. I hadn’t the heart to go on deceiving that pure, sweet creature who gave herself completely to me. Who was not afraid of anything in the world, neither shame nor misfortune. Who said almost indifferently: “If I were to have a child I’d never be able to go home again, my mother would slam the door in my face.”
I don’t know what unhappy idea suggested to me that it wasn’t necessary for me to speak the truth. That it would be better if she saw me one day in my true colours. That she herself should work out what had been going on? Thus there would be no great scene. And afterwards I’d simply explain it away.
It was a stupid idea. Because I now regret infinitely accepting old Bodrogi’s invitation to dinner. I really don’t know how I could have done it. Perhaps it wasn’t I that did it but the devil that sometimes surfaces in one. The old man caught me in the coffee house:
“Come over for dinner on Tuesday evening, my boy. My son’ll be at home as well. He’s got three days leave from the army.”
I dressed for the dinner with great care. I had a nice light beige summer suit, and I wore that. I looked at myself in the mirror—I was a young man about town.
I rang at the front door. The young lady of the house opened it.
“Well, here you are then, a whole half hour late.”
We quickly drank a glass of rose pálinka, then sat down to table. Piri was seated beside me. There was in the air a vague hint that she might be offered to me in marriage. If, of course, I were to grow up, qualify as a lawyer or obtain a teaching certificate.
The lady of the house called through the dining-room door:
“You can serve up, Vilma.”
Everyone around me was chattering. My friend was talking about his artillery training, Mrs. Bodrogi about rising prices, and the engineer about the front at Uzsok. Piri laid a hand on my arm:
“What’s the matter with you? Why are you so nervous?”
At that moment Vilma stepped into the room. On her arm was a large plate of stuffed eggs. She had come all the way to the table when she saw and recognised me. Her face went first as white as chalk, then a blazing red. Of course she didn’t say a word, indeed her appearance was calm. But I could feel what pain there must have been behind the slight tremor that shook her elbow as she held the plate.
I could not look at her as she went round with the plate of eggs. I closed my eyes. There was silence. When she reached my side and held out the food to me I greeted her quietly:
“Good evening, Vilma.”
“Good evening,” she replied dully, and looked into space. And again I was aware that it required all her peasant strength for her not to fall, plate and all, there beside the table.
The young lady began to giggle.
“Are you acquainted?” and with inspired feminine instinct she added, “from some soldiers’ dance, perhaps?”
Everyone laughed at the preposterousness of that liaison. Vilma moved on round with the plate, her face turned to stone. Then, her task completed, she went out. And carefully, silently, closed the door behind her.
We ate, ate. I was spoken to, didn’t answer, didn’t even understand what was being said. All my soul was outside in the kitchen, where green Erfurt powder was sprinkled in the four corners, and from where there opened the little cubby-hole with the narrow iron bed and the stiff skirts on the nails in the wall. I was reproached for being so unsociable. Confusedly I mumbled something about having a painful tooth and having bitten on it. My hostess advised me to put some rum on it. She tugged at the little pear that hung above the table for the next course. She rang once, twice, three times. Nobody came in. Finally she got up and, looking angry, went out herself into the kitchen.
Now long-drawn, painful minutes went by. My heart was in my mouth, and I lacked the courage to go out and see what was happening out there. What could be happening? A muffled exchange could be heard. Then again silence. Then the door opened and there appeared the lady of the house carrying the dish with the roast in her own genteel hand. Red with rage she resumed her seat.
“That girl’s gone mad,” she said. “She won’t stay a moment longer. She’s given me back her wages, put the money down on the table. She said she’d rather jump off the landing but she won’t come back into the room. Have you done anything to upset her, Sándor?”
Everybody looked at me.
“Me? I haven’t done anything,” I denied in alarm in cowardly fashion.
Now nobody was laughing. The misfortune cast a shadow over the dining room. We ate in silence. Everyone felt that something serious had happened. Suddenly Piri, as one that could no longer contain her excitement and curiosity, jumped up and on the pretext of going for mustard ran out into the kitchen. She was back in a moment.
“That crazy girl’s packed her things. Here’s her kitchen key. She’s given it back!” and she placed on the tablecloth the little nickel-plated key which I knew so well.
“She’s gone?” I asked quietly.
“Just this minute!” Piri replied brightly, and looked into my face with ill-disposed curiosity.
Suddenly every thread of patience, good manners and friendship that bound me to those people snapped. I threw my napkin onto the table and jumped up. I didn’t excuse myself and rushed out into the stairs like a madman. I ran round the passageway, down the stairs three at a time. Under the gateway I caught her up. She was wearing a kerchief and carrying the heavy wooden box in her right hand—her shoulder was dipping under its weight. Panting from my exertion I barred her way. She stopped. She looked at me uncomplainingly, gently, warmly, as when someone takes their leave.
“Vilma, my dear …” I began to stammer, and reached for her free left hand.
She withdrew it.
“Allow me to pass, sir!” she said quietly, but with such indescribable potency that I had to make way for her. She looked at me a little longer, then turned her head and went out into the dark street with her green box in her hand. I was never to see her again.