The dawn of the New Year found friction between Austria and Hungary continuing on the grain question. The Hungarian landowners still refused to sell, and the bread riots which had taken place in the larger towns formed the chief topic of conversation. The Prince, one of the biggest of the landowners, declared his willingness to sell if the others would, but not pretending to be a philanthropist, he told his agents to hold back till the others would come forward. The Austrian Government began to use coercive measures towards Hungary as diplomatically as possible, for, Hungary being the backbone of the realm, they were not in a position to risk any serious division with her just then. A certain amount of grain was released, but not sufficient to make any appreciable difference to the market, so, prices remaining as high as ever, Vienna grumbled. Butcher meat, too, was dear beyond the memory of all : in the country game was good and plentiful, but in the towns it was far otherwise, and there was unprecedented distress and misery for the
war-workers to relieve.
Disease continued to spread very rapidly, and the big towns were literally nests of infection, for the winter had not been cold enough to check the spotted typhus, small-pox, and cholera which were raging.
Amid the general depression it was difficult to feel “festive,” and, while the servants and the soldiers had a party on New Year’s Eve, at which they entertained nearly all the village till dawn, the Herrschaft were very dull, forgetting all about New Year till the morning, when at breakfast a letter arrived from the priest wishing all in the Schloss a good and blessed New Year. After the Mass we went to the priest’s house to give him our good wishes ; the Princess, when he had regaled us with the most delicious home-made wine I have ever drank, failing to persuade him to come to lunch, reminded him that he and the schoolmaster were expected to tea before the treat.
The priest looked uneasy and replied, ” Oh yes! just so exactly.”
The priest again fidgeted but said nothing.
The Christmas tree was lit in the largest drawing-room, and the presents arranged on tables at the top of the room. As early as half-past four the whole village had assembled in the courtyard, and, the night being cold and snowy, the Princess gave orders to admit all at once. The soldiers kept guard, explaining, when we entered the room at half-past five, that they had had hard work in keeping the younger members of the company from choosing and walking off with their presents before the Herrschaft appeared. Everybody was there old men, old women, mothers, aunts, cousins, babies in arms all who were even remotely connected with a school child. Mr. Remeceks was absent ; it was beneath his dignity as headman of the village to attend a school treat, but he was sufficiently represented by his multitudinous relatives. The women wore every petticoat and skirt in their possession all stiffly starched and pleated for the occasion; for the Hungarian peasant does not consider herself suitably attired for any function if she has fewer than eight or nine skirts on, and the more she resembles a balloon the more she is in full dress.
There were presents for everybody for the grand-mothers and the babies, too. The boys all wanted trumpets, of which, happily, the supply was limited. But even so there was blowing and blasting in the village of K that must have caused envy to the Archangel Michael.
When all were fed till they couldn’t possibly carry away any more, either externally or internally, the psychological moment arrived when the Princess asked the children to sing the songs they had prepared for her. The guests all looked blank, and during the long pause that ensued, Stefka Jan’s baby let his present a mug decorated with a picture of the two Kaisers and the Austrian and German flags fall
to the floor, where it smashed into as many pieces as even I could wish.
“An omen,” I remarked audibly to the priest, who was next me.
The priest, obviously not displeased with the idea, smiled very broadly.
“Just so exactly that may be, Fraulein.”
By dint of interrogation the Princess discovered that the schoolmaster had not practised any songs with the children, who were all disappointed, and would gladly have sung all night at the Schloss.
“Is there nothing at all that they know, then? Can’t somebody start something well known?” said the Princess almost in tears.
I offered to start “God save the King”; but after a withering glance at me, the Princess led off the Hungarian national hymn in a key so high that disaster soon resulted. Nothing daunted she stopped, saying, “That’s not the key, children. Let’s start again,” and led off her chorus a second time, while the rest of the Herrschaft, helpless with laughter, basely took refuge in the background. None of the children knew the hymn to the end, and dropped out one by one till only a few grandmothers and the Princess were in at the finish.
“And now,” she said, ” that was very nice, and we did without the schoolmaster after all.”