Excerpted from Volume II, Part I, Chapter I
One day in the autumn of 1906 the Budapest Parliament was unusually well attended. In fact the Chamber was packed, with not an empty seat to be seen. On the front benches, the government was there in full force. It was, of course, an important day for that morning the Budget was to be presented and everyone knew that, for the first time since 1903, it was bound to be passed and, more important still, passed by a massive majority. For the previous three years the country’s finances had been ordered by ‘indemnities’ – unconstitutional decrees, which had mockingly become known in pig Latin as ‘exlex’
for the sake of the rhyme, and which had had a disastrous effect on the economy.
At last, and this had been the great achievement of the Coalition government, the nation had put its house in order.
Pal Hoitsy, the Speaker, ascended the podium, his handsome grey head and well-trimmed imperial looking well against the oak panelling behind the platform. In stilted words he commented on the importance of this blessed situation in which confidence had been restored ben the nation and the King, the Emperor Franz-Josef in Vienna.
A few meagre ‘hurrahs’ came from a handful of enthusiastic members, though the rest of the House remained silent, stony- faced and stern. None of the political groups – not even the minorities party whose leader, the Serbian Mihaly Polit, was to propose acceptance of the Budget – gave the smallest sign of believing the Speaker’s words. The reason was that that morning, September 22nd, an article had appeared in the Viennese news- paper Fremdenblatt baldly stating that this much-vaunted harmony was nothing more than a cynical and dishonest political fiction.
The article concentrated on the resolution which had been drafted on the previous day by the legal committee of the Minis- try of Justice and which, so everyone had been led to believe, would be incorporated into law at today’s session.
It was a delicate and disagreeable situation.
The difficulties had started two days before when a member of the People’s Party had proposed that the recently resigned government of General Fejervary should be impeached. The new government, much though it would have liked to do so, could not now avoid a debate on the proposal (as it had done the previous July when similar propositions had been put forward by the towns and counties at the time of the great debate on the Address), especially as the proposer was a member of Rakovsky’s intimate circle. Naturally the government suspected that the latter was behind this latest move and it was believed too that the whole manoeuvre had been plotted in Ferenc Kossuth’s camp of treachery and was intended to breed such confusion and doubt that the newly achieved harmony of the Coalition would be endangered. This was indeed a direct attack just where the new administration was most vulnerable. Everyone now professed to know that one of the conditions of the recent transfer of power had been that no harm should come to members of the previous government. The leaders of the Coalition had accepted this condition since their object was to restore good relations between the nation and the ruler and the government of General Fejervary had been appointed by the King. That this agreement had been made was not, until now, public knowledge and indeed had been expressly denied during the summer when Laszlo Voros, Minister of the Economy in Fejervary’s so-called ‘Bodyguard’ government, had first announced the existence of the Pactum, the settlement of differences between the royal nominees and the elected representatives. These denials had then been in somewhat vague terms, but now the matter had been brought out into the open. The new government’s problem was how openly to face the situation provoked by the People’s Party representative, offer a solution that would content the opposition, and at the same time keep their word to the King.
Everyone’s face was saved by the intervention of Ferenc Kossuth, who boldly risked his reputation in the discussion in the committee when he declared that no Pactum existed since secret agreements of that sort were unconstitutional. This was a dangerous statement to make since everyone knew that for the King to have made the new appointments, agreement must have been reached on specific points such as this; but it sounded well and so dignity had been maintained by oratory. As a result it was planned that the House would reject the impeachment proposal and instead give its approval to an official statement which branded Fejervary and his cabinet as ‘disloyal counsellors of the King and nation’ and delivered them to the ‘scornful judgement of history’. It was further decided that this official statement should be everywhere displayed on posters.
The formula was a good one and all the committee members had left the meeting satisfied in their own ways; the radicals because the hated ‘Bodyguard’ government would be publicly degraded, and the new cabinet because they were no longer faced with a constitutional obligation to initiate an impeachment which would be most embarrassing to them.
But now, when everyone had breathed a sigh of relief and thought that the difficulties had been solved, the bomb had been exploded in the leading article of the Fremdenblatt, which was known to be the semi-official mouthpiece of the Court in Vienna. Here it was declared that, ‘according to well-informed sources in Budapest’, the previous day’s committee decision would not be presented in its agreed form since it was unthinkable that those who enjoyed the ruler’s confidence should be put publicly in the pillory. It was further declared, and this was said to have come from someone ‘close to Fejervary’, that the former Minister-President would himself speak at the next session of the House of Lords and that he would then explain the full details of the Pactum.
No more. No less.
There was an atmosphere of gloom in the Chamber. The weather outside was grim and autumnal and little light filtered down through the glass-covered ceiling. The lamps were lit that illuminated the galleries on the first floor and the seats reserved for the press, and these too added to the lack-lustre effect for, although here and there faint reflection could be caught from all the panels of imitation marble and the gilding on the capitals, there were great areas of shadow which made the vast hall seem even darker than it was. Even the painted plaster statues could hardly be seen. Only the Speaker’s silvery hair shone on the platform.
Out of bored good manners the members remained seated in their places; but everyone was preoccupied with their own thoughts and they hardly heard the Speaker’s rolling phrases. In many parts of the Chamber five or six heads were bent towards each other as little groups discussed in whispers the new turn of events revealed by the Fremdenblatt and the menace that lurked between the lines of the article. Only Minister-President Wekerle leaned back calmly in his chair, his handsome face, which was so reminiscent of that of an ancient Roman emperor, turned attentively in the direction of the Speaker. As the architect of the Budget which was everywhere acclaimed he was, no doubt, contemplating the triumph of its acceptance; but his manner was that of a man who has weathered many a storm and whose nerves were firmly under control.
How the world has changed, thought Balint Abady who, as an independent, sat high up in the seats opposite the Speaker. What storms would have raged here a year and a half ago! How every- one would have jumped about shouting impromptu phrases, raging against the accursed influence of Vienna and the sinister ‘Camarilla’ that ruled the Court. Then even the Speaker would have made some reference to the ‘illegal interference by a foreign newspaper!’ Perhaps they saw things more clearly now that they knew more of what is really going on . . . perhaps at last they were beginning to learn.
With these thoughts in his head he listened to what the Speaker was saying.
As the speech was coming to an end someone from the seats of the 1848 Party came over and sat beside him. It was Dr Zsigmond Boros, the lawyer who was Member for Marosvasarhely. Dr Boros’s political career had started well. After his election in 1904 he had become one of the chief spokesmen for the extreme left and when the Coalition government was formed he had been appointed an Under-Secretary of State under Kossuth. After two months of office, however, he had suddenly resigned without giving any reason. Gossip had it that his legal practice was involved in some shady dealings, though no one knew anything specific about the matter. Nevertheless, he found himself cold-shouldered by many of his fellow members for, in those days, while any amount of political chicanery would be tolerated, people were puritanically strict about personal honesty. Boros had only occasionally been seen in the House since his resignation from office and it had been assumed that he had been busy putting his affairs in order. Two days before the present session he had reappeared. Abady had noticed that since his return he had held little conferences with one group or another, obviously explaining something and then moving on to talk to other people. Now he had come to Abady and sat down next to him. He must have some special reason, thought Balint.
Copyright © 2013 by Miklos Banffy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.