Authors: Antal Szerb
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
Y WAY IS TO BEGIN
at the beginning” said Lord Byron, who knew his way around polite society.
Strictly speaking, I suppose all my stories begin with the fact that I was born in Budapest and that soon after—though it escaped my
at the time—I was given the name I still bear today, János Bátky.
I pass over the events of the next thirty-two years—which include the Great War—between my birth and my first encounter with the Earl of Gwynedd, for he rather than myself is the hero of this remarkable tale.
So, to our first meeting.
Early one summer, with the London season drawing to its close, I was at a
at Lady Malmsbury-Croft’s. This kind lady had taken me under her wing ever since my time as Donald Campbell’s scientific secretary. I should explain that my occupation is to assist elderly Englishmen in the pursuit of their intellectual whims. Not to earn my living, as it happens: I have a small inheritance from my mother on which I can get by in whatever country I choose. For some years now that country has been England. I am extremely fond of its noble landscapes.
During the course of the evening the hostess seized me and led me off to a tall, grey-haired gentleman with the most wonderfully impressive head. He was seated in an armchair and smiling silently to himself.
“Your Lordship,” said she, “this is Mr John Bátky, the expert on medieval British insectivores—or was it old Italian threshing machines?—I really can’t remember at this moment. But whatever it is, I know you’ll find it absolutely fascinating.”
And with that she left us.
For some time we smiled benignly at one another. The Earl had a remarkably handsome head, of the sort one sees wreathed in laurel on the frontispiece of old books: a kind you don’t often see nowadays.
At the same time, I was rather embarrassed. I felt the noble lady’s somewhat inexact description had made me appear mildly
“Allow me, if I may,” the Earl began at last, “to ask what our hostess actually meant.”
“My Lord, the sorry truth is that the good lady was to some extent right. I am a Doctor of Philosophy, specialising in useless information, with a particular interest in things a normal person would never consider important.”
This was a facetious attempt to fend off a more serious topic, namely, what I actually do. I have found that the English do not approve of displays of intellectual curiosity.
A strange smile crossed the Earl’s face.
“Not at all. I am quite happy to talk about serious topics. I am not English. I am Welsh. That makes me, apparently, fifty per cent more like a Continental. No Englishman, by the way, would ever ask you your occupation. However, for my own intellectual satisfaction, I must insist on an answer to the question.”
He had such an intelligent-looking head that I blurted out the truth.
“At the moment I’m working on the English mystics of the
“Are you indeed?” the Earl exclaimed. “Then Lady
has made another of her miraculous blunders. She always does. If she gets two men to sit with each other thinking that they were together at Eton, you may be sure that one of them is German and the other Japanese, but both have a special interest in Liberian stamps.”
“So My Lord is also a student of the subject?”
“That’s a rather strong term to use, in this island of ours.
merely have hobbies. I dabble in the English mystics the way a retired general would set about exploring his family history. As it happens, those things are part of the family history. But tell me, Doctor—mysticism is a rather broad term—are you interested in it as a religious phenomenon?”
“Not really. I don’t have much feeling for that aspect. What interests me within the general field is what is popularly called “mystic”—the esoteric fantasies and procedures through which people once sought to probe nature. The alchemists, the secrets of the homunculus, the universal panacea, the influence of minerals and amulets … Fludd’s Philosophy of
Nature, whereby he proved the existence of God by means of a barometer.”
“Fludd?” The Earl raised his head. “Fludd shouldn’t be
in the company of those idiots. Fludd, sir, wrote a lot of nonsense because he wished to explain things that couldn’t be accounted for at the time. But essentially—I mean about the real essence of things—he knew much, much more than the scientists of today, who no longer even laugh at his theories. I don’t know what your opinion is, but nowadays we know a great deal about the microscopic detail. Those people knew rather more about the whole—the great interconnectedness of things—which can’t be weighed on scales and cut into slices like ham.”
The fervour in his eyes was certainly un-English. The subject was clearly close to his heart.
Then he was overcome with embarrassment. He smiled, and assumed a more casual tone.
“Yes, Fludd is a bit of an obsession with me.”
At that moment a pretty girl joined us, and chatted away at great length, rather inanely, while the Earl, with true good breeding, generously encouraged her. I writhed with frustration, desperate to resume the conversation. Nothing interests me more than the way people relate emotionally to the abstract—why Mr X is a convinced Anglo-Catholic and Miss Y is devoted to Gastropoda. And why an Earl should be so enthusiastic about someone so
and thoroughly dead as Fludd—that justly-forgotten quack and sorcerer—was a particularly interesting question.
But once again, Lady Malmsbury-Croft descended on me, and this time her blunderings proved less inspired. She led me to a distinguished old dame who would not have looked out of place in a museum and who quizzed me about animal rights in Romania. My protests were in vain: she insisted on regaling me with
examples from her last visit to Armenia. Apparently some lapdogs had become separated from their owner and been forced to fend for themselves.
Luckily a friend of mine, Fred Walker, suddenly appeared before us, with a sleekly-groomed young man in tow. He seated this person beside the lady, gathered me up and whisked me away. The old dowager failed to notice the change.
“Who is this Earl?” I asked him.
“You don’t know him? Why, he’s the one genuinely interesting person in the room. Owen Pendragon, Earl of Gwynedd. A
fascinating crank—just the chap for you.”
“So what’s his story?”
Gossip was one of Fred’s strong points.
“Well, then—this is years ago now—he had a mistress, a woman of rather dubious reputation, as you will see. She began her career in Dublin, walking the streets. He was going to marry her—
were quite outraged—but she had second thoughts, dumped him and married an old millionaire called Roscoe. Roscoe was the Earl’s father’s best friend.
“The amusing bit in all this,” he went on, “is that the Earl is otherwise a convinced, if rather quixotic, aristocrat. The story goes that while he was up at Oxford he joined a society that was so exclusive there were only three men in the entire university of sufficient rank to belong. Then the other two went down, and he stayed on as the one and only member. For two years he
who to take on as Vice-President, but couldn’t find anyone. Finally he went down himself and the society folded. For similar reasons, he has never once set foot in the House of Lords.”
“I’m sorry, Fred, but I don’t see anything special in this. Your stories are usually a lot better. From a man with a head like that, I expected something much more interesting. For an aristocrat to marry a woman of the lowest class is only natural. His social rank is enough for two.”
“True, János. But that’s not why I described him as an odd character. He really is odd. Anyone will tell you that. But the other stories I’ve heard about him are so absurd and nonsensical I’d
not repeat them.”
“Let’s hear some of this nonsense.”
“Well … for example, what should I make of the story that he buried himself like a fakir, and after two years, or two weeks—I forget which—they dug him up and found him in perfect health? And in the war, they say, he went around during the gas attacks without his mask on and suffered no ill effects. He’s supposed to have magical healing powers. The most incredible of these
is that he revived the Duke of Warwick a day after his doctors
had pronounced him dead. There’s a rumour that he has a huge laboratory in Wales where he carries out strange experiments on animals. And he’s created some new creature that comes alive only at night … He doesn’t make any of this public because he loathes the democratic nature of the sciences. But it’s all
. All I know is that, in company, he’s always extremely kind, and no one ever notices anything at all strange about him. But he isn’t seen very often. He doesn’t leave his castle for weeks on end.”
With that, he leant over towards me and whispered in my ear:
“Mad as a hatter!”
And he left me there.
In the course of the evening I successfully contrived a second meeting with the Earl. I sensed that he found me not uncongenial. He told me my eyes reminded him of a seventeenth-century
, one Benjamin Avravanel, whose portrait hung in his castle. The man had been murdered.
I won’t transcribe the long conversation we had, particularly since I did most of the talking while he asked the questions. And though I never did discover why the Earl was interested in Fludd, the discussion was not unproductive. I seemed to have gained his sympathy because, as we parted, he said:
“There are some old volumes on your subject in the possession of my family. If the mood takes you, do call in at my little place in Wales, and spend a few weeks there, looking them over.”
I felt the honour keenly, but am so idle by nature I would never have taken it seriously. However a few days later I received a
invitation that actually specified a date. That was how it all began.
I mentioned the invitation to one of my friends, Cecil Howard, an employee of the British Museum working on a subject related to my own. When he heard the news, the colour drained from his face.
“Bátky, you’re a lucky dog. In this country it’s only foreigners who get that sort of chance. Wonders are spoken of the Pendragon Library. But since Sackville-Williams was there to catalogue it, eighty-five years ago, no one with any expertise has been allowed in. The Pendragons have been reclusive for centuries. If you work
up the material they’ve got there you’ll be the leading authority on the history of seventeenth-century mysticism and the occult.
“My God,” he sighed, sounding utterly deflated. “You’ll write the Life of Asaph Pendragon. You’ll get telegrams of
from America, and five PhD students will come on annual pilgrimage from Germany to consult you. You’ll even get a
in the French journals. And apart from all that, it’s quite something to be invited to Llanyvgan. It’s the finest and most exclusive castle in Wales.”
I left him to his envy. A colleague’s envy, when all is said and done, is the scholar’s one reward on earth. I didn’t tell him that in all likelihood I wouldn’t be publishing anything. My nature is to spend years amassing the material for a great work and, when everything is at last ready, I lock it away in a desk drawer and start something new. I had in fact revealed my horror of writing for publication to the Earl and had met with his full sympathy. I think the confession may well have led to the invitation. The Earl felt sure that the outcome of my researches would not be any sort of masterwork.
I also concealed from my colleague one fact he would have sneered at from the dizzy heights of his learning: that it was the living Earl of Gwynedd rather than the dead Robert Fludd that had seized my imagination. The Earl’s face, his person, his whole being, together with the tales Fred had told me, had set my mind racing. He seemed to embody an historical past the way no book ever could. My intuition told me that here was the last living example—and an exceptional one at that—of the genuine
of the arcane in the guise of the aristocrat-alchemist, the last descendant of Rudolph II of Prague, one for whom, as late as 1933, Fludd had more to say than Einstein.
I tell you, the invitation thrilled me. To pass the intervening time—and what else could anyone like me, seeking spiritual adventure, do in my position?—I set about researching the
history. I found a mass of material in the
Dictionary of National
, and enough references to occupy me for a month of full-time work.
The Pendragons trace their origin—though I notice the line isn’t exactly clear—to Llewellyn the Great. This is the Llewellyn
ap Griffith who was beheaded by Edward I, the king whom János Arany immortalised for the young reader in Hungary as riding a pale-grey horse. The old Welsh bards who went to their death in the flames singing like the doomed heroes of their own tragic art were in fact being punished for praising the house of Pendragon. But all this is in the mists of the past. These are the medieval Pendragons, living with their half-savage tribes among the great mountains: in their wars against the English there is something redolent of the hopeless struggle of the American Indians.
Then a strange incident disturbed the tranquillity of my studies.
I was smoking my pipe in the foyer of the hotel one evening, in the company of Fred Walker, when I was called to the phone.
“Hello, is that János Bátky?” a man’s voice asked.
“What are you doing at the moment?”
“I’m talking on the phone. Who are you?”
“Never mind. Are you in an enclosed booth?”
“János Bátky … you would be well advised not to get involved in other people’s affairs. You can be quite sure that the people you are working against are aware of your movements.”