From Berlin to Budapest in 1892 (chapter XXIV)

This is the finale chapter

Chapter XXIV

As I came in front the door flew open. Five men rushed out, smiling and bowing. I recognised them at once: it was not long since in their carriage they had, as we thought, been mocking us. My spirits fell still lower. “Ist es ein gasthaus?” I asked in my very best German, which might have been, I admit, far better, and still not good. “Madame speaks French, is it not so?” one answered in that blessed language. “It is here, the inn. Enter— enter!” Never before did French sound so sweet in my ears. And they were glad enough to speak it, since they were Hungarians, and no self-respecting Hungarian will talk German if he can avoid it. They helped me with my bicycle; they opened the door wide; they bowed and scraped. When Joseph joined me, there they were all smiling in a row. He recognised them too. “What are these idiots grinning for? ” he said, for hunger makes one savage. “They don’t mean anything by it,” I told him. “They are enchanted to see us –  I don’t know why — and, what’s of more account, there’s something to eat inside.” The front door opened immediately into a good- sized room. In the centre was a table with seven covers. They pulled up chairs for us by the window, they surrounded us, and then a tall, big, fine -looking old man, with white beard and hair, brought a decanter, wine-glasses, and something on a plate, and placed them before us. “What is it?” asked Joseph “Two specialities of the country,” they all answered; “bread and cognac made in this district. We always begin our dinner with them here.” Joseph turned to the old man, who was the landlord, to find out what else he could give us. “He speaks only Hungarian,” they all explained for him. “But he is preparing a dinner. It will be simple, because he expected no guests. What there is you shall have.” The dinner was served almost at once. It was a banquet— soup, gulyas, that still more famous Hungarian speciality, an omelette and cheese. And when I said to the friendly landlord, who hovered over us heaping up our plates, “Thank you” in Hungarian—“Koszonom,” as the man at my right wrote it in my note-book—he added an extra course of honey and apples. He had a pretty granddaughter, with very red cheeks and black hair, whom he would not allow to come nearer than the kitchen-door. Three of our friends, who were young, kept making excursions into the kitchen to see her: she was the true type of the Hungarian girl, they said, to explain their interest. The banquet was all but at an end when one of them said gravely, looking at J oseph and myself: “Now that you are in Hungary, you must conform to the usage of the country, is it not so? Will you not then drink with us?” We all chinked glasses, and they drank first to our bon voyage, and then to America. It was gracefully done. It was at this stage of the meal that they at last explained why we had been received as distinguished guests. The party of five men, who were engineers travelling on some Government business and had studied in Paris, had heard of us in Vienna, had spent the night in the same hotel at Raab, had seen us start, and, as we knew, had overtaken us. Their smiles then had been all friendliness, not mockery. They knew this was the inn we must reach by noon; we were strangers travelling in Hungary, and the honour of their country was at stake. The landlord understood the position at once. Was he not a patriot? He had fought with Kossuth; these pictures on his bare white walls were portraits of the great democrats of Europe. Never must it be said that strangers had come to his house and been turned away empty. His duty it was to prove that the far-famed hospitality of Hungary was no idle word. Well, we liked it—the warm, cordial, heart-whole Hungarian hospitality, of which this, in the little inn of a nameless village, was destined to be but the first of a long series of delightful examples. The engineers left before us. It was time to settle our bill. The old man brought a slate and chalked it up. It came to a gulden and a half for the two. This was preposterous, and we were sure he must have forgotten something, but how could we tell him? “It’s the cognac, for one thing,” said Joseph, and he asked the landlord “Cognac?” pointing to the slate. But the old man shook his head violently. It explained as plainly as if he had spoken that he, as a Hungarian patriot, even though he was an innkeeper, would have been disgraced for ever had he taken a kreutzer for the glass with which he bade us welcome under his roof. Then he wanted to fill our pockets with all the apples that were left. The engineers had given us elaborate directions at parting. But it was no use. We were as much astray as ever, and not long afterwards, to our surprise, we found ourselves on the shore of the Danube, close to Gran, the town with the big sham St. Peter’s on the hill, and the crowds of seminarists in long blue robes in the streets. The boat from Vienna was already in sight. It seemed like fate, and we bought our tickets and went on board. Upon the first-class deck we were in the West, in the Europe of black coats and Parisian bonnets. But surely it was the East down there on the second-class deck, where a tiny boy in the divided skirts of his country was playing on his fiddle a Czardas for the white-robed Hungarians, for the Servians in baggy red breeches and fez, for the Slovaks with hair hanging long and loose under their broad-brimmed black hats, with enormous leather belts covering the gap between their drawers and their short white shirts. Down the river floated rafts worked by these same creatures, who look as wild as savages and are as tame as sheep. Hills now rose on each side and presently behind them, on our right, the sun sank and we steamed on in the dusk. Then lights were lit on shore, little points of gold in the darkness, first scattered, and then grouped on the hillsides and on the low banks, until suddenly a burst of electric light blazed upon us. We were steering under a wide bridge, and the street-lamps of Budapest and their long, shining reflections stretched in two beautiful curves in front of us. It was worth coming by boat to get this for our first impression of the town. At the wharf a porter took our bags. We wheeled our machines along the embankment, under the trees, where people were sauntering up and down in gay crowds, and open-air cafes in a brilliant line looked riverward. In five minutes we reached the hotel. As we opened the doors, a wild burst of gipsy music greeted us. We were in Budapest, and our journey was at an end.

The Illustrated London News, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, 1892

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