The children had developed a special fondness for a certain Auntie Magda, a grotesquely ugly woman who came several days a week to help with the washing, when they lived on the country estate in the years before the Great War. Through her incessant gossip, she was a highly effective source of information, in addition to the entertainment value of her embellished stories. She supplied them liberally with details that came from her penchant for collecting the most grisly accounts of horrible accidents, revolting diseases and heinous crimes.
She had a large, shapeless head, which was consistent with her body in its lack of design, but this by itself was not remarkable. It was the number and size of the warts on her face, which she periodically tried to eliminate, by tying threads tightly around them until they dropped off, that added a touch of gruesome whimsy to her appearance. This remedy was only temporarily successful. The growths would only reappear at their former sites, but she accepted this with resignation. Her mesmerizing physical repulsiveness and her compelling personality made her so irresistible that whenever she came, the children would escape from whomever was supposed to be looking after them and run to her as if she were the pied piper. She kept them fascinated for hours, I was told.
Auntie Magda was a widow; her husband understandably had shot himself, and she had a grown son, who had gone to Paris to be an artist. She almost died giving birth to him and never had another. “He took forever to be born. I suffered for hours. The blood poured out of me by the bucketful, and they had to keep ladling it back in,” she used to keep telling them. “His head was so pointed that when he was born he was four centimeters longer than he was a week later."
Zoli’s mother, Countess Liza Havassy-Erös, who was pregnant again, used to beg her to shut up: “Please Magda. My nerves are in shreds!”
Zoli and his sisters, Aurelia and Giselle, the servants, and occasionally the grownups would gather around to listen to her wonderful stories of infidelities, ungrateful children, and people who came to a ghastly end through their own stupidity…but her very favorite topic was sluttiness in women.
She had a running feud with a certain Mme. Leonora Silvás, the wife of a former professor of classical literature at the University in Budapest, now a hopeless alcoholic. His wife eased her loneliness by standing at the gate by the road, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and trying to lure male passersby into the yard. The professor was now employed as a sort of a manager at a neighboring estate. It wasn’t a vital job and luckily no one seriously expected anything from him, as it would’ve been useless. Sometimes they would see him near the railroad station reeling down the road toward the taverns: a well-dressed, staggering professor, with long, elegant gray hair, muttering Greek and Latin quotations.
“She brought nothing but misery to that poor man. No wonder he’s an alcoholic. She left him, you know, for an officer in the army fifteen years ago, forcing the wretch to attack her lover with a sword in, of all places, the halls of the Ministry of Justice. It ended with both of them receiving six month sentences. The lover actually went to jail. Silvás did not, but he was dismissed from the university. She wasn’t even beaten, but the women threw her in the river, and then the pair had to leave the city like fallen angels, in disgrace, and banished in shame.
“I knew her as a girl,” Magda continued. "She’s evil, born in sin and absorbed only wickedness at the breast of her mother who was notorious. Some say her father was a gypsy,” she hissed like a snake. “She should be thankful she had the undeserved good fortune to temporarily stun such a man as Silvás, being what she is. Instead she torments him incessantly.
“When they married he was unaware of what kind of family he had gotten into. The trouble started right after the blasphemous wedding. Her horrible mother was the very first female alcoholic,” Magda insisted. “She turned into an idiot, and couldn’t be left alone. Poor Silvás had to pay for a series of slatternly nurses, one worse than the next. Evening after evening, he had to pry them out of taverns, the old sow and her drunken caretaker, rolling around on the floor, the two of them. One night she had some kind of fit — they choke on their own vomit, you know — and she suddenly died ...died in shame on the filthy floor of a low-class saloon.
“That was his downfall, poor fellow: being a scholar and simply not having the right constitution for drinking. On that night the sympathetic proprietor offered him a drink, and who could blame him for having another, and another, with his dead mother-in-law on the floor? It’s not his fault.”
Still, Mme. Silvás was good-natured. She always had a friendly greeting for them, and would toss them fruit from her trees. She seldom lost her temper even when being tormented by the village women.
“Why do you persecute her so much, Magda?” Lili, the children’s governess asked her once. “It doesn’t bother her anyway. She never answers back.”
“Oh! You think she’s some martyr? Let me tell you, just the other day when the Almás woman was coming up with the eggs, she innocently said in passing, ‘What’s that smell?’ Madame lost her temper all right! Turned on the poor woman like a she-devil, screeching like a vampire and declaring that at least she could ‘show a legal marriage certificate to anyone who was interested, can you?’ As if that were the point!”
“Well, do you blame her, after all the hounding she endures?”
“No, actually,” Magda conceded, surprisingly, “and she had reason. That Almás woman had only a wild marriage. But at least she was faithful.”
A wild marriage, Lili thought, and kept quiet. Her own history was better left unscrutinized, though it turned out all right in the end. In the backwoods of any village one suffers a few adventures one doesn’t ask for, especially at the harvest celebrations all the big manors used to throw for the peasants. It was always the woman’s fault, as if she had asked for it. As if one was not helpless with two or three petticoats pulled over one’s head. In any case, it’s a fine line. It doesn’t take much to surrender a poor woman’s virtue.
She had nearly gone crazy when the disastrous results of the incident became apparent. But God knew the truth and her prayers were fruitful. She had longed to go home to where she was born: the house of her mother’s employers. Her former mistress couldn’t have cared less for the fate of any of her servants, being a heartless woman who would die alone, but the master mercifully felt uncomfortable about the misadventure, since she was so young and had come to his household an innocent girl. He quietly slipped her the money to go home, and by doing so gave her the opportunity to change her destiny and rise a few notches in the servant hierarchy.
They had all made fun of her accent when she had arrived in France alone at fourteen, but in two years she not only became fluent, but had learned German as well, having beguiled the village priest to tutor her. The scorn in the kitchen turned to envy and accusations of putting on airs, but it flattered Lili that anyone would envy her. She was very thin then: underfed, overworked, and ordinary looking in her uniform and cap, except that she was excessively pale and blonde, which was not fashionable. She was unhappy in France, and kept to herself, but she took their envy as a good sign of her progress. She had left the Havassy-Erös estate in Hungary as a chambermaid, and returned two years later with credible qualifications as a governess, speaking excellent French and tolerable German. She quietly promoted herself, claiming a marriage and respectability. It wasn’t likely anyone would take the trouble to verify it. Her hair had darkened after her pregnancy, to its present rich gold. It was a sign of positive change, she thought, a good omen of a better future. She had returned home to the estate, to young master Zoli, and was governess to the girls, Aurelia and Giselle, and her baby Angèle was welcomed as a companion to them.
Madame Lorelei Caspari was not of their class; her husband had been a partner in a North African importing company that had made their fortune. They had lived in Morocco for most of their married life, having returned to the village only because Caspari became ill with a progressive lung ailment. Satisfied with his riches for the time being, he thought he might as well retire for now and go home, as there was beginning to be trouble in Morocco anyway.
The Caspari’s lived on a smallish estate about two kilometers from the Havassy-Erös manor. According to Magda, Mme. Caspari never felt at home in their countryside. She had grown accustomed to the hot climate and the colonial life in North Africa. She was a highly-strung, delicate woman and when her husband died two years later she had begun to languish noticeably.
Once in the winter, Mme. Caspari appeared bundled in furs, driving up to the front of their estate in a sled drawn by two magnificent chestnut horses. She had come to fetch Magda, who worked for her as well, and to spare her from the long walk since there had been a snowstorm. The children were in the middle of a snowball fight, Zoli taking on all the girls, and they ran, enchanted, to the gate. Madame loved children and made a great show of fussing over them.
“Hello, you darlings, you sweet, precious dears. Come tell me your names.” She held out her hands to Angèle. “What a little angel! Come up and sit next to me here, under the blanket.” Magda had come out with carrots for them to feed the horses and in the resulting racket Madame had learned their names and ages, and indulged in dramatic exclamations: “… innocent creatures, who give our hopes new life,” and so on. They were well-drilled in manners and used to being patronized by adults, and were hoping she would invite them for a ride, or at least give them some chocolate as they clambered all over her sled and horses. But alas, Magda threatened to beat them off with the horsewhip and they glided off down the road without them.
Everything they knew about Mme. Caspari they had heard from Magda. Her problem was not unusual. She scorned the pitiful country social life that was available but then she felt lonely in her self-made isolation. She was a small woman, fine-boned and feminine. She was still young and would have been beautiful, if it were not for her conscious expression of sweet martyrdom, contrasting falsely with the obvious care with which she had been dressed, and the opulence of her accoutrements. She seemed sad and very fragile, as if she was always on the verge of bursting into tears, and she had the means to be able to indulge herself in this vulnerability. She employed the usual gardeners, and besides the house servants she used seasonal laborers to work on what was actually her very profitable little gentleman’s farm.
Magda was fiercely devoted to her and shielded her from slander, which was not as vicious as that against slatternly Mme. Silvás, but inevitable, perhaps, because she kept to herself, which was unforgivable in the eyes of the local women. It was rumored that she was barking mad, having been seen wandering by herself in the woods around the village, mumbling to herself. She would appear driving in her carriage, or in and out of the shops, usually in the company of her servants. Once in a while, she was given to vivid outbursts in public. She had once made a shameful scene in the marketplace, accusing a peasant woman of swindle over a basket of cherries. She had been beside herself with outrage, harshly accusing the poor woman of putting an enticing handful of luscious red cherries on top to hide the majority of the rotten ones on the bottom. The peasants were aghast that a person like her should make such a fracas over what was merely standard practice. That she would lower herself to trade insults in public with people like them was so unseemly as to make the story shockingly irresistible.
Usually after such an outburst, she would retire from public for a period of time ranging from a few weeks to a few months, if her agitation worsened. Though she defended Madame Caspari from scandal, given that Magda was congenitally incapable of refraining from gossip, it did not preclude her from giving a detailed account at the manor of the goings-on in the house down the road, substantially biased by her own opinions and interpretations. And it was Magda’s romantic assertion that beautiful and vulnerable Madame Caspari had married for love and that when her husband died, her heart had been so badly broken that she had never recovered. “My poor lady. She went berserk with grief,” and named herself the buffer between her beloved mistress cursed by nervous trouble and the world.
Shortly after that winter afternoon, Madame Caspari had retired again. The Havassy-Erös moved the household back to the city for the remainder of the season.
The following spring, Mme. Caspari surprised them by sending a note via Magda, inviting the manor children to come to a little tea party. And so they set off on a warm day, Zoltán, Aurelia, Giselle and Angèle, along with Magda. They were used to such visits. As well-bred children, it was part of their duty and education to regularly suffer through formal social visits to people of their class and the respectable people in classes below them.
Madame Caspari, or Auntie Lorelei, which they now called her, was unjustly obsessed with Angèle and enamored of her white-blonde hair. It became obvious that though she had invited all of them she really only wanted to play with Angèle, as though she were a doll. Aurelia was bored stiff, idly braiding the long gold fringes that hung from the sumptuously embroidered tablecloth. Magda would have made her stop had she been around, but she had delivered them as promised, and then went about with whatever usual business she had to do in the rest of the house. Zoli was trying to make the best of things; he at least wanted to hear about her life in Morocco, and so as he was stuffing himself with sandwiches and pastries he kept firing questions at her:
“Did you live in a tent when you were in Morocco?”
She laughed theatrically, delighted. “Oh, certainly not! We lived in the French Quarter. In the colonies one doesn’t mix with the natives. There have always been separate quarters in Casablanca for Europeans.”
“I would have preferred to live in a tent with the Arabs.”
“It does sound amusing, but it was unseemly for the Europeans to associate with the Arabs.” This strange woman had gotten herself up to have a little tea party with the children in a gold lamé décolleté evening gown and an elaborate, feather-studded coiffeur, so plastered in priceless jewelry that it was hard to look at her without squinting.
“Why? Well, I suppose it’s because if you socialized with the Arabs, you might marry one. And if you married one, you would risk upsetting the idea that they were an inferior people. They are pagans, you know. You would turn the whole culture upside down. Anyway, they didn’t live in tents. In fact, the wealthy ones had huge villas: sometimes as many as thirty dependents sat down to eat at each meal in the home of the master. And on their pagan feast days the master would give his servants whole joints of meat, which all their wives would fight over."
“What about Turks? We socialize with them and they aren’t Christian either.”
“Yes, but some of them are. And we’re used to them since they’ve been coming and going for hundreds of years. Anyway, the Turks are less exotic. They are whiter, more like us.”
"Where there is a Turk, there are women, horses and gardens," Aurelia quoted, because as usual, she had to get all the attention.
“Oh quit showing off!”
“It’s on Gul Baba’s tomb, stupid. I’m just saying.” Visiting Gul Baba’s tomb was a favorite outing for school children. He had won everlasting veneration hundreds of years ago for introducing roses to the country.
“Children.” Auntie Lorelei made a sad face at their squabbling.
Aurelia’s handiwork on the tablecloth fringe became more and more intricate. She was tying off her fourth row of alternating knots in a diamond motif. Just wait until Magda had to wash it; she would recognize whose work it was right away, Zoli snickered to himself.
Now that he had been fed, he was growing restless and wanted to go outside. He was no more interested in this visit than Madame was interested in having him there. She had included him out of politeness, but she was really more interested in the girls, especially Angèle, who was only five and was very shy, and had a way of gazing at one solemnly with her huge pale eyes. Auntie Lorelei made her sit on her lap, and fussed over her to the blatant exclusion of the others. The adults in their circle of acquaintance were often eccentric and such an extreme attachment was not considered excessive. Magda bragged to everyone how it warmed her heart to see the way childless Mme. Caspari doted on the wraithlike little Angèle.
Zoli decided to excuse himself and take a look around. He wandered down the hall from the drawing room, daring himself to go upstairs. He seriously thought it over, spending a few minutes staring at the exotic, richly colored pattern of peacocks woven into the Turkish blue, green and gold-fringed brocaded fabric that hung at the entrance to her day parlor. Ladies of a certain order had hours of leisure and prided themselves on their needlework.