Laszlo & Laszlo Chronicles I
BY ANDRES LASZLO SR
Laszlo & Laszlo Chronicles I is a translation/adaptation of my father's collection of short stories, first published as Solo el Paisaje Cambia in 1952, and later in French: Tout Passe... Laszlo Sr. escaped Hungary, settled in Paris, and eventually moved to Spain; this journey can be detected in this book. As I translated my father's book, so as to make it the first part of The Laszlo & Laszlo Chronicles, I have adapted it, so as to make it more attractive for a contemporary audience and to producers. Buy the book. VIDEO
4. MY FRIEND IN THE PHOTO
1935. As so often will be the case, I am unable to attach an exact year to this story, but by now it seems pretty clear that Senior is proficient at what was to become his first “real” profession: directing theatre, and as for the first time he takes on the part of “I”, I have chosen to believe that this “I” really is Senior himself and that the experience at least in part is real. Previous to this I believe that he had worked as a critic, an actor and as a stage manager, so I’d say it couldn’t have been much earlier than 1935 (when he was 25). I also know that he did manage his father’s traveling thespian society for a while, maybe he even owned it, and I would not be surprised to find that I have half-brothers and sisters from this time. However, here it seems as if he works as a director-for-hire; maybe it is from the time just before he took over/started to run Maximilian's company. Actually, he sounds a bit older than 25, but as he left Hungary 1938, it cannot have been much later either. Considering the time, the place and our family background, the vampire bit must have come quite natural to Senior who (born “von Keller”) must have had as ancestors all sorts of allegedly undead or at least nocturnal creatures. Actually, oral tradition has it that we (the von Kellers) are related to the Draculas. My father would always work well into the early mornings and arise late, something that I - as a child, and fascinated by vampires – remember extrapolating into theories that displeased my mother, especially as my father did nothing whatsoever to discourage me.
_ _ _
A year or so before the outbreak of the Second World War, I was staying in Nové Zámky in Czechoslovakia, whose “Magyar” provinces at the time had formed several Hungarian-speaking theater companies. Here the owner of one such recently formed company had invited me to stage Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s mystery play Jedermann, a production that later would be performed across much of Europe. Opening night was quickly approaching, and as I had undertaken to have the play rehearsed and ready in less than a week from now, time was in short supply.
It was the night after a pre-dress-rehearsal performance, and I was just finishing off a cigarette in my office when someone quietly and somewhat indecisively knocked at my door. Considering the apparent lack of assertiveness, it seemed strange to me when, without waiting for an answer, a tall and scrawny man appeared before me, wrapped in a large cape and flaunting a Lavalliere necktie. Despite his young age – he could have been no more than in his mid-twenties – his eyes were deeply sunken, with large bags hanging beneath them. His shoulders were as narrow as they were hunched and in his bony hands, with fingers that looked like an eagle’s claws, he held several manuscripts.
“I could have sworn that you didn’t recognize me,” were the first words to pass over his thin, bloodless lips, and he said them sort of like a greeting; a greeting that coincided with that I, once I had done up my trousers, turned around to face him.
“My name is Salgó, Bandi Salgó, son of the Salgó of the Golden Mills,” he said – theatrically exaggerating his every gesture, as if he wanted to make sure I understood that what he was telling me was great news indeed - all while pointedly looking at the chair in front of my desk.
Before I had had the time to offer him a seat he had sat himself down in front of me, and if I remember correctly, I apologized for being so unprepared.
However, the man did not seem offended, and he went on to congratulate me on what he was certain would become a great success, repeatedly insisting that the performance had provided him with the greatest artistic pleasure he had ever experienced. He also had come in order to renew the friendship between us. It took him very little time to “remind me” that his father had once worked in my father’s theater company; something that he swiftly corroborated by means of an old photo of our fathers together with the two of us as young children on the steps of a bandstand in some public park. True to tradition, he explained that he had, just as I, followed in his father’s footsteps and just as I had become a theater director he had become an actor. However, with a sad countenance he also informed me that; “Although I may be traversing villages across the country with a small company of which I’m the leading man, I am doing this more in the carriage of Talia, than in that of Good Luck.”
He told me with no feigned modesty whatsoever that he had a great talent that one day doubtlessly would get deployed in the services of some great theater company in Budapest. But he also confessed to me, with the most ruthless self-criticism imaginable, that he was no master in the art of self-promotion, and that in addition, he lacked the means to represent himself effectively, a fact that he admitted only very reluctantly as he considered this a most shameful shortcoming.
Slowly, and not at all without further detours, did my old photo-friend approach the true motive for his visit. He invited me to where his company was giving a performance in three days’ time: a small town in the Cárpatos Minor in which he would be playing Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts. He begged me to come and see him perform, and then, assuming that I liked what I saw, to help him find work in Budapest, since, and I quote, “It would be as easy for you as to lift your little finger.”
Such a trip wouldn’t have been particularly beneficial to me, because in addition to getting tired from the journey and the experience I would be losing time that could have been well spent fiddling with the details of my own play; changes to be made, reviews to be considered, critics to be smarmed, actors to be managed, an understudy-structure to be developed, local dignitaries to invite, etc. When I explained that unfortunately, it would be completely impossible for me to attend his performance, I had thought that this would put a swift end to the matter. However, it was soon clear that I had severely underestimated the resistance and perseverance that my photo-friend was capable of putting up and I couldn't help but wonder why he hadn’t used these powers of persuasion to talk himself into a better company.
He spared no detail in describing and elaborating on, all the delights that would befall upon me as a consequence of spending a day in the village. He talked of the rooster’s crow, the fresh air, the lovely scenery and the homemade bread; he even promised to arrange for me a plate of bear stew. Once he’d gotten past the delights of homemade moonshine and the firm and thin-wasted girls of the village, I had already realized that further resistance would be in vain. What seemed like an authentic tear shone in his left eye as I promised that I would come, and, to finish it all off, he confessed that the performance was being held in my honour, and that the only reason why he hadn’t told me this earlier, was that he didn’t want to put any form of inappropriate pressure on me.
In the afternoon of the agreed day, a miserable-looking old Tatra came along to pick me up at my hotel. It was already late autumn, and everywhere nature was starting to yawn, preparing itself for its winter slumber. We climbed up towards and eventually onto, and then along, the mountain highway, at every turn setting off legions of crows.
“We should get ready for a harsh winter,” my driver explained, pointing at some young tree branches - many of which had already been nibbled off by rabbits or hares - giving the trees a sad appearance.
We then spotted two deer frolicking about in a clearing, as carefree as if they knew that the season was over, yet nothing about the oncoming winter. They didn’t stop playing even as we passed by them, a behavior that my driver took that as an excuse to start complaining about the local wildlife. He complained about the foxes that without any good reason would prefer chickens to rats or crows; about the wild boars that would dig up the roots of young trees and newly sown plants; about the deer that were too fast and clever to be trapped, and about the wolves who bit and killed and whose bodies more often than not seemed inhabited by even more malicious creatures. He then gave me a fright as he suddenly swerved off the highway and straight into Mother Nature, for no obvious reason taking a detour into the forest, dangerously maneuvering the vehicle through the trees. He later explained that he had done so, because he had seen an owl in the forests and didn’t dare to drive straight past it, as doing so would have brought about something that, though he couldn’t exactly remember what, yet was quite terrible; he figured it probably had something to do with the wolves or even with vampires. It was only then that I recalled that we were crossing into the land of lore and that to these mountain-dwellers and where superstition was an integral part of everyday life. I hope my alleged ancestry won’t be an issue.
As it was getting darker, the car’s driver stopped criticizing the forest and its inhabitants, and instead, he tried to entertain me with tales of the supernatural: miraculous events, wolf-men, ghosts, the living dead, goblins and evil spirits. The stories about these monsters - the least terrifying of which seemed to be the ones that drank the blood of horses or cows when the moon was full or under the cover of stormy nights – did not fail to entertain me, especially as my companion seemed to judge these creatures with much more leniency and respect than, for instance, rabbits or deer. I, however, prudently kept my opinions to myself, and as we finally arrived at the village, I got out of the car with my left foot first, obeying my companion’s expert advice.
Mr. Salgó was waiting for me together with the gentleman who had the highest authority in these parts of the mountains: the walking-stick manufacturer in whose car I had made the journey. My first task, therefore, became to pay a visit to his factory that gave work to some thirty or so machine operators, and thus was the most important source of employment in the region. We were then presented with some “first-press” moonshine as an aperitif in his office before we set off for the theater. On the way, Mr. Salgó apologized for not having accompanied me on my journey. He explained that he had been rehearsing day and night in anticipation of his big moment, all for no other reason than that he didn’t want to make a fool out of himself in front of me. He then asked me to elaborate on the word ‘vermoulu,’ a word used in the script: he wanted to know what it really meant and on how it ought to be pronounced.
Before he left to get into costume, he dropped, quite intentionally, a little piece of paper: the slip with ‘vermoulu’ written on it in wide, childish writing. He then put his foot on top of it before swiftly picking it up and putting it back into his pocket. I looked at him, momentarily perplexed, but then I understood – or, remembered, rather – and an explanation was no longer required. Local thespian superstition obliged every actor to stamp on a piece of fallen paper before taking to the stage, as failing to do so would condemn oneself to a disastrous performance. “I’m not one bit superstitious,” he assured me, laughing; “You can ask anybody. We could all do excellently well without all this medieval foolishness; behavior behooving country folk for whom it’s their main source of entertainment. Hopefully, we shall see each other during the interval,” he added, and with that, he left.
The performance was being held in the large function room of the local hotel’s restaurant, at one end of which a makeshift stage had been built on top of a large number of empty barrels. On top of it all, in the right-hand corner, there was a small padded bench. This was the only on-stage seating there was, and it had been built in honor of the theater’s main patron, the walking-stick manufacturer, and myself. The bench creaked ominously as the patron - dressed in tails, with a beautiful white autumnal rose in his buttonhole, together with myself - sat himself down on it.
After the high-pitched sound of a horn, the stage manager, dressed in an old combat jacket, lowered the wicks of the room’s two large gas lamps. Then, as the horn sounded a second time, the man - now holding an enormous torch apparently designed to light much bigger things - began to light the candles that made up the stage lighting. He then left the stage, and as the horn was blown for the third time, he raised the curtain.
The peculiar arrangement of the audience’s seating surprised me, because instead of the usual parallel straight or arched rows, the layout of the seats was in the shape of a half-sun, with the seats emanating from the centre of the stage in a way that, viewed from the prompter’s box, formed “rays” that spread out in straight lines into the large room. I had been puzzling over what could be the reason behind this peculiar arrangement for a while when the patron noticed and told me in a hushed voice, “In a village as small as this one, costs can only be recovered if one can count on selling tickets to all of the local so-called ‘intellectuals’, something that becomes even more important when the women of the village, as on this occasion, boycott a production.
The walking-stick manufacturer’s explanation had left me with two obvious questions, and as I answered, “Yes?” I didn’t really know which he was about to answer.
“Well you see, generally speaking, the patrons are more than happy to support whatever cultural events that are being offered: happy to promise beforehand to attend one, two, or even several, performances. But for such a generous patron to sit in the second or third row… They simply wouldn’t. So this is our way of creating eight front rows. You know how we countryfolks are. Good people, most of us, very traditional, but, how should I put it? A bit too worried about appearance and about our own importance.”
The applause at the raising of the curtain cued the entrance of Mr. Salgó. With his painter’s costume, and in spite of his English pipe, he looked more like a Persian poet than the Norwegian painter that he was supposed to be. However, he soon made us forget about his somewhat inappropriate costume, and after his first few lines, I had no doubt whatsoever that my friend in the photo knew how to use his voice and that he indeed was the excellent actor that he had claimed to be. However, it was soon equally obvious that the talent and quality that surrounded him in the form of his fellow actors did little to get the best out of him. Yet, the man’s talent and potential – mainly dampened but also in some ways enhanced by his dismal fellow artists – was great, close to extraordinary.
It was unpleasant, the way that every actor was performing, not for the audience, but for me personally; they had learned their lines for me, for me they had ironed their best clothes, and because of me they were wearing more make-up than they otherwise would have. It was at me – Mr.-all-powerful-from-Budapest, the man whom they presumably had been told with one finger, could get them a one-way ticket to the good life - that they directed their every line.
During these reflections of mine, the performance continued. Under our bench, in a seat right next to and below the stage, what looked like a local landowner was smoking his pipe. The man, who didn’t seem to enjoy himself one bit, had placed his large hat in front of him on the edge of the stage where Oswald was now with great enthusiasm and energy describing his sorrows to his mother, and I noticed that he was finding it difficult to move according to the choreography, because of the landowner’s greasy and quite appalling hat.
After a while, I realized that the plot of the play had been altered. Because of my visit they, of course, had wanted to make sure of a full house despite of the women’s boycott. And, in order to guarantee that, I assumed that they had gone in search for some ruse to attract not only the cultured patrons and intellectuals but also some of the superstitious villagers. This they had undoubtedly succeeded to do in part by means of the play’s seductive title – Ghosts. And, though I undoubtedly was their main target, they, of course, didn’t want to let their audience down. And, since the drama titled Ghosts didn’t actually contain a single one of the ghosts that the audience no doubt had come to see, the members of the theatre company were now obviously doing their utmost to compensate for this by adding mystery through every means imaginable, including some pretty low scams and subterfuges: coloured lamps, wolf-howls, bat shadows, off-stage death rattles and claps of thunder.
Let me give a short summary of Ghosts, Ibsen’s masterpiece: A young man returns home to his widowed mother, and he then in a very short space of time, falls victim to two nervous breakdowns. Deeply saddened, his mother suspects that her son has gone mad; a reasonable suspicion, it might have seemed at the time, as his father had syphilis. In front of her son, she then dangles the possibility that the country air might cure him, and that the likelihood of this would be further improved if he accepted sexual abstinence, something to be achieved by him sharing a bed with his sister. Oswald accepts these conditions and asks his mother that should she see that madness overcomes him, she shall kill him with a poison that he obliges her to carry at all times. It is a play about the sins of the father being visited upon the son, and it is obvious that Ibsen believed that the disease was inherited rather than transmitted. As in the times of Ibsen, the name of the father’s illness wasn’t to be spoken on stage the author cleverly uses the word vermoulu. Ghosts is a play very much about taboo subjects: religion, venereal disease, incest and euthanasia.
A wave of applause greeted the artist, who made his bow, took what could best be described as a “mid-session curtain call” and then accompanied us to the hotel’s wine cellar, where we all had what the walking-stick manufacturer referred to as a ‘cardiac tonic.'
In the second act, Mr. Salgó continued to give the audience goosebumps in more or less every scene and as we finally got to the last part of the drama, there was no reason whatsoever for the audience not to be more than happy with what it had witnessed, at least not from the star performer. The end - in Oswald’s great scene, as in any well put-together theatrical work - took us through the dramatic conclusion of the piece.
Oswald was sitting in the living room together with his mother. They had been awake and talking all night when the mother realizes that by now there should be enough light outside and as their lamp thus is superfluous she turns it off. She heads to the window and opens the curtains whereupon the morning light floods the room, violently startling Oswald, who slowly focuses his gaze and entire being on this deluge of light. Then, after what seems like a never-ending silence, he lets his lower lip hang down - stupidly, insanely, letting there be no doubt that he indeed is mad - and he turns to his mother, “I want the sun, mother. The sun. The sun.
This actually is, and in a way ought to be, the last line of the play - apart from where the mother acts out the promised poisoning of her son - at least in the play as Ibsen figured it ought to be performed.
However, Mr. Salgó was not ready to allow a few missing lines to make his performance a lesser experience than he figured it ought to be. Mr. Salgó was giving us his all, clearly showing us that he was not of a time but for all ages. He was proving that he was a man of action, improvisation, and good taste; that he was a man together with whom one did not get one’s money’s worth, but much more. He was no media-enhanced snowman-actor ready to melt when the heat got up, nor was he acting dishonestly like the Yankees that camouflaged their lack of talent with what at best could be called stage presence, declaring their love with their hands in their pockets, or eliminating armies of gangsters with no more than a handgun, alone while chewing gum in their mouths. No, he was most certainly nothing like that. Rather, he was showing us how one should get lost in a scene without losing it. First, he began to gasp most prudently then he made the unmistakable sounds of a death rattle; the exaggerated look in his eyes and the movements of his body made it appear as if he genuinely was doing a St. Vitus dance. In his movements, he skilfully combined the symptoms of epilepsy, rabies and strychnine poisoning. He thus extended this great dramatic scene for several long minutes, countless times repeating the words “mother” and “sun”; words that he hadn’t dared change, probably only because he figured I might get offended.
I don’t know how long he was in this repetitive and convulsive state, but the man with the disgusting hat who sat just below us appeared to grow increasingly impatient, and after throwing some angry glances – first encouraging and later accusing - at the stage manager, who was preparing to lower the curtain, he decided that he had had enough. The landowner made a few grunts, got up, put on his hat most furiously and left, bumping into, if not deliberately kicking, several chairs on his way out. And thus concluded the performance and I have to say, in defense of the audience, that nobody seemed happy or even entertained by the big-hatted man’s last-minute intervention. And, what’s more, some even hushed the rude perpetrator of the disturbance.
We went down to congratulate Mr. Salgó in his dressing room, where I assured him that in spite of the somewhat unorthodox prolongation of the ending I had enjoyed what I had witnessed and in front of several witnesses I promised that I would indeed try to get him an audition in Budapest. A little later, glowing with delight, Mr. Salgó accompanied us to the dining room.
As not a single woman was present at the dinner gathering I was placed as the head of the table that had been assembled by the pushing together of several smaller ones, as if for a banquet. At my side was placed the main sponsor, the walking-stick manufacturer, who was deploring the lack of female attendance, something that, he admitted, indirectly accounted for the emphasizing of the supernatural. The manufacturer then informed me that though my visit, of course, had caused a virtual revolution amongst the women of the village, other things hadn’t panned out as expected.
The sophisticated women - who, though in a clear minority, constituted the main part of the village’s social elite - was an audience that normally was more than happy to attend, though only as long as the subject matter wasn’t too risqué. This subject matter was pretty risqué, and that was unfortunately not the only problem, because my past had caught up with me, even out here in the middle of nowhere. I was born Andres Laszlo von Keller, and according to some rumours, probably nothing more than malicious slander, the von Kellers allegedly had some grand-, grand-, grand- something, that had married into a well-known and disliked line of vampires. Thus, when my presence had been added to the equation, the women had decided to give the “first night” a miss.
The gypsy orchestra started to play a Strauss waltz as a stew made from smoked wild boar was served. Next to each dinner guest, carved chalices made out of deer’s antlers were spreading the intoxicating aroma of moonshine so exquisite that it seemed certain to put both heart and stomach in the best agreement imaginable.
The witty pharmacist had started to enchant the table by telling entertaining stories, and the orchestra had lowered the volume so that their music, rather than to stand out, formed an integral and pleasing part of the meal.
The battered veal was brought out next, and I soon received the bear stew that I had been promised, after which followed several other dishes. As this region produces no wine, at least no wine worth mentioning, each dish was accompanied by 80% or 90% proof spirits, and with the combined effects of the ingredients described above, the dinner was turning itself into something more than just a meal: a wonderfully harmonic interaction of smells, sounds, moonshine vapours, aromas and witticisms, all against the delightful and harmonizing background music of the gypsy orchestra.
The owner of the windmill modestly recited some of his own poetry, and the young parish priest announced that in a recently-received letter, he had been credibly informed that the father-in-law of one of his cousins in Prague had a friend in a high place who had made some rather compromising-sounding verbal commitments in reference to the village’s long-held ambition of getting its own railway station.
With a smile of complicity on his lips, the pharmacist came around to inform me that he had been reliably informed that shortly we were to become witnesses to a hilarious joke, as some unidentified prankster had put mercury salt in the gypsy orchestras’ drinks. I looked towards the stage, which mirage-like seemed to be floating in the haze of tobacco smoke, and I noticed that some of the musicians indeed had started to look a little pale. At the table, everyone pretended not to be watching, even though they were obviously all keenly waiting for events to unfold. The ingenious author of this hilarious prank - who of course was very well aware of the consequences of dispensing a laxative such as mercury salt in large doses - with great pomp turned to the orchestra and requested that a Liszt rhapsody known for its particularly long duration be performed.
It didn’t take us long to realize that his time studying pharmacy at the university hadn’t been wasted. The second violin’s face was already covered in sweat, and after only a few more minutes the man quite un-dramatically left the ensemble. The face of the third violin, a man of a naturally pale complexion, soon started to take on a greenish tint and as he was ever more convulsively squeezing his lips together, he was going ever more out of tune. The first violin, which was also the conductor of the orchestra, threw the third violin some furious glances; it seemed the conductor didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. Shortly thereafter, giving up the battle, the third violin ran out of the room, a bit like a limping rabbit, leaving behind both his instrument and his dignity. So then there were only three: the first violin, the timpanist, and the double bass that, apparently undaunted, set themselves to get to the end of the piece, apparently having no idea of how difficult a task this would prove to be. The timpanist was next; more and more frequently he began to hit the frame rather than the skins, and soon he started to squeeze his legs and other parts of his anatomy together so hard and in such a strenuous manner that it became both painful and contagious to behold, and several of the guests felt that they too had to leave the table. The poor timpanist kept looking at his shoes as if he already knew the inevitable outcome of what was happening; it was as if he had realized that it was now only a question of time.
Meanwhile, and in consequence, the rhapsody had started to sound ever more like a gathering of sexually excited cats, and this enchanting masterpiece was indeed being deformed into something close to unrecognizable. This continued deterioration culminated with the timpanist’s collapse onto the floor, all while the first violin, helplessly scrunched up his nose until it seemed to sort of blind him. Maybe it actually did, because something did cause him to start poking his one remaining functioning colleague in his face with his bow. Meanwhile, the timpanist had broken into tears – the pain variety rather than the lachrymose - and he was now crawling towards the exit, accompanied by the merciless laughter of the guests. The stubborn leader of the orchestra - as he finally must have realized what was happening and that he would not be able to see the rhapsody through to its end - tried to save some face. He put down his violin with a determined gesture, and although it was obvious that he had to muster all of his strength and willpower, applauded by the audience, he managed to walk upright all the way to the door.
Only the double bass player made it to the end of the piece, apparently without having a clue as to what had caused the strange behavior displayed by his fellow musicians. Then, as I would later be told - despite his advanced age, the man must have been well past seventy - for the very first time in his life, he had become the orchestra’s soloist. In order to congratulate him, the guests invited him for drinks at the table, but only to discover that the man didn’t like alcohol. However, the old man did defend his colleagues bravely, explaining that he precisely knew what must have caused his colleagues’ sudden illness. Their cook hadn’t made the sign of the cross before cutting the loaf of bread for breakfast, and if that wasn’t the cause, then it surely must be that the aforementioned cook had kept a piece of that very same bread in his pocket in order to poison the neighbour’s cat that was sneaking out of the area where it was supposed to stay in order to kill the cook’s young chicks under cover of night.
By now – the smoke was so thick that it prevented one from seeing what was going on at the other side of the table, and even the walls and the tablecloth seemed to be seeping alcohol - I felt I’d had enough fun. I was tired, and I wanted to get back to Nové Zámky and my own play. They tried to persuade me to stay the night, but seeing my determination, they eventually got me a driver. Mr. Salgó, who was in an overwhelmingly good mood, waved me goodbye. He had offered to come along and was now assuring me of his eternal gratitude, again and again repeating and writing down addresses on which I should be able to contact him if I wanted him to come to Budapest. I could sense that he was quite happy when I declined his offer to accompany me back to Nové Zámky.
The driver, who was not at all thrilled about the night-time journey ahead of us, had a wolf’s foot dangling from his rear mirror, and he explained that he considered it a much better talisman than the traditional rabbit’s foot, especially when dealing with the undead, with whom we might very well find ourselves interacting, unless we postponed our journey until the next morning. Then, in order to fortify himself, as a moral tonic, he took a large swig from a bottle of denatured alcohol, which – quite logically, because of its low price - was the only drink that poor people could afford. And with that, we set off into the night and onto what was to become a pleasantly uneventful return journey.
After the premier and some additional performances of Jedermann, all very well received, I temporarily left the play into the competent hands of the company’s owner, whereupon I continued to Vienna where I evaluated and eventually purchased the production rights to two newly written comedies. I then returned for several more performances of Jedermann in Czechoslovakia, again all very well received, and it thus took quite some time before I found myself back in Budapest.
True to my word, I spoke about Mr. Salgó to several directors of theater companies, and eventually, I did find one who expressed interest and declared himself prepared to meet with him. I sent a letter informing Salgó of this to the address - or the addresses, rather – that he had provided me with, asking that he’d come and see me in the week before Christmas. At the same time, I informed him about the theater director, the details of the recommendation I had provided for him and the texts he should learn. I was surprised when he didn’t respond to my letters, and as I figured that he probably hadn’t received them, I wrote to the remaining addresses, the less likely ones, and for a long time I kept expecting him to show up – he didn’t.
It was at the beginning of spring when, in relation to something completely unrelated to Mr. Salgó’s failure to show up, I visited an old cafe-cum-restaurant that also served as a thespian recruitment office and a club for provincial actors that were trying to make it in Budapest. It was here that I found an itinerant actor who knew what had become of my friend in the photograph and the reasons for his absence and silence.
During the course of a night’s partying - I figured it was in all likelihood the very same night of partying as the one I had partly witnessed – some strange events had taken place. An educated gentleman that was also one of the patrons – the itinerant actor that was telling me this, believed that the man was a pharmacist - had thought up a hilarious joke. The man had declared that he would buy a casket of moonshine for the actors if someone among them was prepared to pay a visit to the nearby cemetery and steal a cross. The man that was telling me this believed that it could quite possibly have been said in the hope that this well-nigh impossible task would put an end to the partying and thus to further expenses for the patrons. However, the man obviously hadn’t taken Mr. Salgó’s presence into consideration, or, if he had, he hadn’t known that the man wasn’t one bit superstitious. The celebrated young actor, who allegedly in all likelihood soon was to make his début in one of Budapest’s leading theatres, had offered himself to perform the task, and Mr. Salgó hadn’t flinch an eyelid when told that he would have to take down and bring back not any old cross, but a cross from atop one of the tombs.
As he returned - carrying a cross that every villager recognized as it was “special” – he was greeted with amazement, veneration, eulogies, and fear of retribution from those being dug down in the graveyard, especially retribution from those who dwelled inside the ancestral tomb from which this cross had been taken. Even more especially, they feared retribution from the founder of the ancestral tomb. This was a man who allegedly had failed to die properly – or, hadn’t been properly executed, rather – and who was said still to visit the cemetery and the area surrounding it during the hours when the sun was down. However, all thoughts of such nocturnal creatures soon seemed gone, and nothing but cheers of joy could be heard as the opening of the promised barrel of moonshine was announced.
The party had thus continued and as a result, renewed, and improved intoxication had followed, whilst - disrespected, unacknowledged, forgotten even, yet menacingly and quite possibly ready to wreak vengeance upon the living – the cross lay abandoned on the alcohol-soaked tablecloth. The main patron – the walking-stick manufacturer who according to my informant had felt quite uneasy by its presence, and, probably pretty remorseful and unhappy about not only the pharmacist’s prank but also Mr. Salgó’s choice of tomb - offered to pay for one last round if someone would return the cross to wherefrom it had been removed.
Mr. Salgó had calmly finished off his drink and got ready to fulfill his obligation as the only truly non-superstitious among them. He swept his large cape around himself, hoisted the cross onto his shoulder, and so, although now no longer totally steady on his feet, he once more set off for the graveyard. The rest continued drinking for a while, even if by now most of them had to do so with both their stomachs and the rest of their senses starting to rebel. Though soon most of them had left, yet a few stayed behind, waiting for the return of their hero. However, it didn’t take them very long to get bored and leave; they would later all explain that they had assumed that Mr. Salgó had gone straight to bed after complying with his task. He hadn’t. Instead, he had been found early the next day when the priest was taking his daily morning stroll through the cemetery.
He had been found lying stretched out right next to the grave – or, mausoleum, rather - from which he had taken the cross. Mr. Salgó’s bloodless face had shown the sort of surprise that faces often take on right after those carrying them have encountered something they did not believe they would encounter.
“Bloodless you said?”
“And how did he die?”
“While fulfilling his undertaking – as he was putting the cross back from where he had dislodged it, once he had finished – the edge of his cape must have gotten caught and stretched from behind.”
“Someone pulled him off the tomb?”
“That would be one explanation.”
“Was he assaulted?”
“There was no wound, and there was nothing taken or broken.”
“No of course not; I’m just joking.”
I bought the man another glass of wine, thanked him, promised to try to find him some form of employment and made ready to leave. But then, just as I was about to open the door I was halted, “But you know what, some say the other one had,” said the man who had told me about Mr. Salgó’s fate, “but others say his body was so contorted that it was impossible to say.”
“Puncture marks, on his neck.”
“And who’s ‘the other one’?”
“The driver; they found him the day after the play; it seems he had driven of the road while returning someone related to the Draculas that had been watching the performance; someone that would had promised to fix Mr. Salgó…